HC Deb 31 May 1995 vol 260 cc999-1102

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

2.34 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)

In the three weeks since the House last debated Bosnia, the position has qualitatively changed. Conflict has grown. The shelling of Sarajevo has intensified. UN soldiers have been deliberately targeted and killed by both sides. UN personnel, including officers and men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, have been taken captive by Bosnian Serbs.

The Government have decided to reinforce our contingent in Bosnia, and the diplomatic pace has quickened. For all those reasons, I thought it right to seek the recall of Parliament to set out the Government's response to this tense and dangerous situation.

Let me recall for the House the evolution of this crisis. The dispute in Bosnia began to crystallise in the spring of 1992, when Bosnia declared its independence. War broke out, and the country split into three parts. I believe that it would have been wrong for us to stand and watch Bosnia burn, and we did not.

In August 1992, I convened the London conference which brought the parties together in search of a political settlement. We set up the Sarajevo airlift, and we were instrumental in establishing the United Nations protection force's Bosnia command. The first British troops arrived in Bosnia in November 1992. Let me remind the House why we sent them. First is the humanitarian case. I believe that we have a duty—a moral responsibility if one likes—to play our part in the relief of suffering. Soldiers were being killed, but we also saw civilian suffering in Bosnia on a massive scale. There was ethnic cleansing—cold-blooded and racial-based murders. There was widespread rape and brutality. As winter approached, there was the clear prospect of widespread starvation.

There had been nothing like it in Europe since the second world war. The aid agencies were doing their best, but they needed protection if the convoys bearing food and medicines were to get through. So we decided to play our part in providing that protection.

Bosnia is close to the borders of the European Union. Even so, precisely the same case for help was seen by countries as far away as Canada, Malaysia and New Zealand, all of which have joined us in the task. Service men and women of 19 nations have stood with our relief agencies and our troops to help alleviate suffering. Many who would have died are alive today because of that effort. We should understand that many alive today would die if that effort were to end.

Secondly, we sent our soldiers there for strategic reasons. The Balkans have often enough been a tinderbox in history, and war memorials throughout the United Kingdom testify to the price paid in British blood for past Balkan turbulence. The Bosnian war by itself might not directly affect our interests, but a wider conflagration across the Balkans—leading to a wider Balkan war—most certainly would affect our strategic interests.

If unchecked, the fighting in Bosnia could have ignited not only a Serb-Croat war in Croatia, but unrest in Kosovo and Macedonia. That could easily have dragged Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey into confrontation with one another. The Bosnian dispute has always contained within it the seeds of the nightmare of a wider Balkan war.

The consequences of a wider Balkan conflict would be disastrous for Europe as a whole. In my judgment, it is unquestionably in our national interest to prevent that if we are able to do so. The United Nations protection force and British forces may not have extinguished the fighting in Bosnia, but they have contained it and they have prevented it from spreading. That is a remarkable tribute to their efforts. Had they not been there, the circumstances we face today might have been incomparably more serious than those that we are debating this afternoon.

If it is in our national interest to avert a greater calamity in Bosnia and the Balkans, so it is for other members of NATO and the European Union. The strategic case and the humanitarian case were the twin reasons why I thought it right to commit British troops in 1992. Both those cases apply in equal measure today—which is why I expressly do not wish to see the United Nations protection force withdraw until or unless the risks become wholly unacceptable.

I will describe in more detail the developments of the last three weeks. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary warned the House on 9 May that there was a real risk of a relapse into substantial war, in place of the ragged and uncertain peace of previous months. Since then, my right hon. Friend's words, sadly, have been borne out. There has been a chain reaction of attack and counter-attack by Bosnian Government and Bosnian Serb forces. Both parties have violated the Sarajevo exclusion zone by firing heavy weapons on to the confrontation lines and into the city itself.

On 24 May, the UN Secretary-General's special representative and the protection force commander made a further attempt to stop the escalating bombardment. They issued an ultimatum that certain heavy weapons should be returned to the collection points and other heavy weapons be removed from the exclusion zone.

When the Bosnian Serb army ignored that ultimatum, NATO carried out a successful air strike against an ammunition store near Pale. It did so at the United Nations' request.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Were the Russians consulted about the ultimatum? Were they consulted about the strike against the ammunition dumps? If not, would it not have been wise to do so?

The Prime Minister

That was, as it was intended to be, a decision on the ground. No individual national Government were directly consulted. There is a proper procedure for determining how such strikes are approved, and that procedure was followed. The troops are there as United Nations troops, with a United Nations commander who happens to be a British general, and they proceeded at the request of the United Nations. I believe that they proceeded correctly.

Shortly afterwards—in deliberate escalation—the Bosnian Serbs launched artillery attacks against the populations of Srebrenica, Gorazde and Tuzla. In the bombardment of Tuzla, 70 people were killed and 130 were injured. They were, I understand, for the most part innocent civilians in a marketplace—men, women and children going about their daily business. They were not armed combatants in the conflict.

Following a second NATO air strike against the ammunition storage complex on 26 May, the Bosnian Serb army began to take United Nations military observers and members of the protection force as hostages. Hon. Members will have seen, in the press and on television, that some of these hostages, in an outrageous breach of international law and of their status as United Nations peacekeepers, were chained to potential targets as so-called "human shields".

On 27 May, the Bosnian Serb army attacked and captured a French observation post at Sarajevo. The post was subsequently retaken, but one French soldier was killed, 11 were wounded and 10 were taken captive.

On Sunday 28 May, United Kingdom and Ukrainian soldiers were taken captive at Gorazde. Some of the Ukrainians were taken by Bosnian Government forces.

I have set out in this brief summary only the bare facts of the situation confronting the United Nations and NATO commanders on the ground, but there is no doubt in my mind that these events mark a qualitative change in the conflict, and one to which we and our partners have no choice but to respond very firmly

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

The House is listening intently, obviously, because of the British soldiers who are being held, but can the Prime Minister tell the House how he reconciles humanitarian aid given by British solders in blue berets with bombing attacks by American pilots in blue berets? Is it possible to combine humanitarian aid with a combative role? Is that not the question to which he should address himself?

The Prime Minister

I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows precisely what has happened when the NATO attacks—not necessarily American: they are NATO planes—in these circumstances have been used, and they have been used as a deterrent to persuade the Bosnians that that sort of activity is not acceptable to the international community in any way whatever.

It is not very long ago—as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, for he will have hated this as much as anyone else did—that the nature of atrocities that we saw at the beginning of this war spread a darkening stain right the way across the conscience of the whole of Europe and the whole of the world as well. I believe, in these circumstances, that we have not only a right but an obligation to take the action that has been taken, to try to bring this conflict to an end and to end the suffering that so many people have faced in Bosnia.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Does the Prime Minister agree with the French Prime Minister that the preparation of those air strikes was not good, and that it led to putting the peacekeepers at risk in a thoughtless way?

The Prime Minister

I said just a moment ago that I thought that it was right for the commanders on the ground to proceed as they did, and I have to say that I do not believe that I am prepared to second-guess the decisions of the commanders on the ground to whom those decisions were delegated, and I do not wish to do so.

Let me now turn to the response that I believe we should make, and first to the matter that I believe is most upon the minds of the House this afternoon: the British and the other United Nations troops who have been taken captive and held hostage.

The situation is that more than 350 United Nations personnel—who, I remind the House, have been serving in an impartial humanitarian and peacekeeping role in Bosnia—are now being illegally held by the Bosnian Serb army. Of these, one is a Royal Air Force officer serving as a United Nations military observer, and 33 are officers and men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were taken captive last Sunday from observation points around the town of Gorazde, where 336 British solders are based.

Six—not five as previously reported—of the soldiers have apparently been injured in a road accident and are in hospital, although none of them, we believe, is in a serious condition. The fusiliers are thought to be in Visegrad and in both good heart and good health.

The taking of United Nations peacekeepers as hostages is a despicable act, which has rightly been condemned around the world. It is without a shred of justification. It will win the Bosnian Serbs no favours and gain them no friends. It will guarantee unremitting hostility to them, and the certainty of pariah status and international isolation.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

The Prime Minister will be aware that the whole House and those outside it—particularly in Wales—will be very concerned about the safety and welfare of the 33 young soldiers who have been taken hostage by the Serb aggressors. Will he tell the House today that whatever action he proposes to take will in no way endanger the safety of those young men, and that he will ensure that that action will be taken to secure their early release?

The Prime Minister

I will have something to say in a few moments about what we propose to do. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand why it would be neither wise nor prudent for me to say too much about the matter at this time.

Within hours of the capture of the British troops, we took steps to make it clear, directly and unequivocally, to the Bosnian Serb leadership that the safety of our troops in Bosnia is of vital British interest. We have told Mr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, that we shall hold him and General Mladic personally responsible for the well-being and the safe return of our troops. These words are not lightly spoken, and, as I shall explain, we are reinforcing our protection force contingent.

No one should doubt our resolve to secure the safe return of our soldiers. Yet, as we embark on the moves towards such a result, I hope that the House will understand if I do not go into detail about the courses that may be available to us.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

In a moment.

With the lives of British soldiers at stake, there will be a need for patience, a time for restraint, perhaps at times a need for silence. But if the silences are long, and if the requirement for restraint and patience becomes frustrating, no one in the House should imagine that those soldiers will be forgotten. The work to secure their release will be unremitting.

Mr. Hughes

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that eight members of the Royal Welch Fusiliers are at present unaccounted for? Does he appreciate that there is considerable concern among their relatives back home about their safety?

The Prime Minister

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the observation post near Gorazde. I understand entirely the points that he has to make.

Let me turn to the reason why our forces are in Bosnia—and to what they are not there to do. Our troops have not gone to Bosnia to wage war, but even on humanitarian duties we have seen that they need protection. If they are attacked, they must be able to defend themselves robustly.

The protection force commander in Bosnia, General Smith, knows that he has our complete support. The protection force must be able to take whatever action is necessary in justifiable self-defence. When it does so, it will have the unqualified backing of the British Government—and, I believe, of the British nation.

To improve the protection force's capacity to defend itself, the Government on Sunday night decided to enhance the equipment and manpower available to the force.

At present, we have some 3,400 troops in Bosnia, protecting convoys and monitoring local ceasefires. A further 3,000 men and women from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are engaged in the airlift from Italy to Sarajevo; in NATO operations to police the air exclusion zone; in the joint enforcement by NATO and the Western European Union of the arms embargo and trade sanctions; and as contingency reinforcements on a carrier task group.

Anyone who has had the privilege of visiting any of those units, as I have, knows that they have carried out their peacekeeping tasks with scrupulous fairness and with a cool resolve—often in the face of provocation. I believe that we can be truly proud of them. But despite their military professionalism, the troops on the ground in Bosnia now need more protection, and the safety of those troops is, as I said, of vital national interest.

So we have decided to dispatch two artillery batteries and an armoured engineer squadron to Bosnia, totalling around 1,000 personnel. The first detachment, from 19 Field Regiment, left for Bosnia yesterday. Those units will increase our contingent's armoured capability. Crucially, they will provide artillery. They will be equipped with 12 105 mm light guns. That will provide the protection forces, for the first time, with the artillery that is now necessary as a deterrent and response to bombardment.

That does not mean that we are taking sides in the conflict. The protection force remains neutral, and it remains impartial. But, to defend itself, it now needs a capability to fill the gap between machine guns and air strikes.

The Government have also announced that 24 Air Mobile Brigade has been placed under orders to prepare to deploy to Bosnia. The order to move will be given unless there is a clear and rapid improvement in the situation. We have proposed to the United Nations that the brigade, as United Nations troops, should come under the command of General Rupert Smith in Sarajevo. We are now discussing the details of the deployment with the United Nations.

Let me say a little more about 24 Air Mobile Brigade. It is a flexible, self-contained force of over 5,000 personnel. It is, as its title suggests, able to deploy very rapidly within theatre. Its equipment includes Army and Royal Air Force helicopters, Milan anti-tank weapons, artillery batteries, an air defence battery and engineer and medical support. We have constantly said that the safety of British troops is crucial; our readiness to deploy the Air Mobile Brigade is ample testimony to that.

Let me emphasise one point that I know is of concern to the House, which should not be misunderstood in the House or beyond it. The protection force is in Bosnia as an humanitarian and peacekeeping force. It is not there to impose peace, and it is not equipped or configured to fight a war. Those points are fundamental, and we do not intend that they should be changed.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Does the Prime Minister accept that there will be widespread support, both in the House and outside, for the concept that not just serving the British flag but serving the United Nations is among the most honourable of tasks for our armed forces?

Although some may react by saying that, as soon as there is particular danger, the troops should be withdrawn, it is also true—given that these are among the best armed forces in the world, equipped to deal with particular danger—that many in those forces will regard the job they have started as a job that they would rather continue, if that is possible. Not necessarily success, but the attempt to bring about peace on behalf of the international community, is the reason why the forces are there, and the reason why the Government are right to support them in the way that the Prime Minister has announced.

The Prime Minister

I have indicated that I wish our forces to stay there, and I wish the United Nations protection force as a whole to stay there to carry out the job for which it was sent. That job is not yet concluded; I hope that it will be possible for it to remain.

We see a strong case for reducing the vulnerability of United Nations personnel—particularly the United Nations military observers, who have been in the most exposed positions. Some may need to be withdrawn, others concentrated and others given stronger protection. The commanders on the ground are best placed to determine precisely how that should be done, in consultation with the Secretary-General and, through him, with the Security Council. I understand that the Secretary-General will shortly be making his recommendations to the Security Council on the future role of the protection forces.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

May I make a little progress?

Our decisions have been warmly welcomed by the protection force and by other Governments. The contact group agreed on Monday that the protection force should have a rapid reaction capability. France, which at present has the largest contingent in Bosnia, has sent reinforcements to the Adriatic. Some other troop contributors are also thinking of strengthening their contingents.

Madam Speaker, those decisions are intended to help carry UNPROFOR through a dangerous phase. We hope that they will make it more secure, will help it to fulfil its tasks, and will deter further escalation. If we can damp down the level of violence and make progress towards a lasting cessation, at that point the protection force would no longer need the enhanced protection.

However, success for the protection force rests ultimately with the warring parties. I believe that, at this moment, Bosnia is at a turning point. It must be made clear to the parties that, if they turned to all-out war, the protection force would not be equipped to remain. It would be unable to carry out its tasks, and the risks to the troops of all nationalities would be unacceptable.

Withdrawal is not our objective; but our ability to handle withdrawal, if it is forced upon us, would undoubtedly be helped by the further deployment that I have announced to the House today.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Before we commit more troops to that theatre who may suffer the same fate as the troops who are already there, will my right hon. Friend comment on the report that the Serbs have said that, if we agree to cease bombing, they will release the hostages? Is that report accurate? If it is, what are we doing to make NATO give us that assurance?

The Prime Minister

I yield to no one in my wish to have those troops returned safely to their units, but I am not entering into that sort of blackmailing deal.

Madam Speaker, in taking those decisions, we have unequivocally signalled our serious intent. We wish to see the protection force remain in Bosnia and continue its work. We wish to restore equilibrium to a situation that has become dangerously unstable. We continue to believe that only a political settlement will end the conflict. There can be no satisfactory and lasting military solution.

The way ahead may yet be rocky and painful. I know that many people, for good and understandable reasons, may advocate withdrawing the forces and, as I have said to the House, circumstances could arise in which that would become inevitable. But withdrawal is not a policy. No one should believe that leaving Bosnia would end the United Kingdom's interest in the conflict.

Mr. Morgan

I wish to put a question to the Prime Minister on behalf of the families of the 30 Welsh soldiers who are being held in Bosnia. Was it primarily the responsibility of the British Government or of the United Nations to have secured in advance some means of escape for those soldiers who were being held in the very difficult pockets of the further extensions of Bosnia in case things got extremely difficult—as they have done—and there was hostage taking? Whose responsibility was that?

The Prime Minister

I think that we have a joint interest in securing their release. Of course, their deployment is a matter that must be determined on the ground, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and the soldiers themselves would well know.

Let me turn to the possible consequences of withdrawing the protection force. If the United Nations left, what would be the likely outcome?

The first likely outcome is that the Muslim areas, including the eastern enclaves, would be likely to come under immediate threat. The bloodshed and loss of life could be massive. Before we sent troops three years ago, Bosnia was on the brink of genocide—of atrocities far worse than we have yet seen. If we depart, I remind the House that those dangers return. Could the west stand idly by and let such actions take place in south-eastern Europe? I doubt it; I truly doubt it. Would we ignore the threat of an all-out Balkan war? Again, I do not believe that we would or should ignore such a threat.

Leaving Bosnia—if the protection force is forced to do so—is neither an easy nor a pain-free option. The threats would return if the United Nations protection force withdrew, and we and our allies would have to find other ways of responding to them—ways which could conceivably impose a greater financial and military burden on us than we are now carrying. Those who contemplate withdrawal must think very carefully about the humanitarian consequences and the strategic implications for European security.

At present, UNPROFOR is holding the ring. It must try to continue to do so, while we seek a political solution. Despite every effort by Governments and individuals—notably Lord Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg—the search for a negotiated settlement has been extremely frustrating. For months, progress has been blocked by the intransigence of the Bosnian Serbs.

Over the past week, we have been in close touch with our partners to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts and maximise the pressure on Pale. I have spoken to the Presidents of Russia, the United States and France, the German Chancellor and the Canadian Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has attended meetings of the contact group, NATO and the European Union, and this morning had further discussions with the Russian Foreign Minister.

As a result of those meetings, there is a renewed unity of purpose among contact group Governments. The Russian Government condemned the behaviour of the Bosnian Serbs in the strongest possible language. We wish to see an equally clear stance from President Milosevic.

The contact group's emissary is in Belgrade today. If the contact group can secure the recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the former republic of Yugoslavia, fears or ambitions of a greater Serbia should be laid to rest, and the message to the Bosnian Serbs would be absolutely unmistakable.

I have tried to set out the situation as I see it. It is stark and it is serious, but we cannot avoid it. So I hope the word will go out this afternoon from all parts of the House that British peacekeepers, United Nations peacekeepers, must be released unharmed and unconditionally.

Let us show our forces, whether they are on land, at sea or in the air in the former Yugoslavia and the Adriatic, that they have the total support of the House. They have saved many lives. They have brought peace and hope and a semblance of normality to central Bosnia. They have prevented the spread of war. They are defending British interests and international security. Their courage and professionalism have earned the widest admiration. They deserve our wholehearted backing, and I commend it to the House.

3.7 pm

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

We have offered our support to the Prime Minister in his action, as he knows. I believe that the more united the House can be on the issue, the better.

The whole House will want to send a message of the deepest support to those soldiers now taken hostage, particularly the 33 members of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the RAF officer. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. Their safety is our uppermost priority and their taking as hostages was a barbarous act of terrorism. It was in violation of every canon of international law and we join the Prime Minister in holding the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs personally responsible for their safe return.

The Bosnian Serbs lay claim to some understanding of national sentiment. They should be in no doubt about the national sentiments of the House and the British people, should any harm come to any one of those hostages. We would expect and demand the pursuit of those responsible without let or quarter.

It is worth reflecting on the conduct of British soldiers in this field of conflict. Some 13 have died and they have often borne the brunt of risk and danger. I believe that they have behaved throughout with conspicuous commitment and bravery and we have every reason to be proud of them.

We support the sending of additional troops as protection. As the Prime Minister has said, it will increase the military capability and options open to General Smith; in particular, 24 Air Mobile Brigade can provide further cover if necessary.

I believe that—perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence can say a little more about this in his speech—these troops need to have a clear chain of command and clear rules of engagement. The House would expect to have a clear assessment of that from the Secretary of State for Defence. Of course, in protecting British troops the reinforcements also increase the protection available to all United Nations troops, but we need to be absolutely clear about the terms on which our troops are operating and they must not be given objectives beyond their capability to achieve.

I believe that talk of withdrawal in Bosnia in response to the taking of hostages is deeply unhelpful at this time. It is hardly a message of firm resolve in the face of what is effectively an act of coercive blackmail.

The Bosnian Serbs must understand that they cannot fulfil their aim of an ethnically pure Serbian state by these means. Until they accept the route of diplomacy, they will remain outcasts on the international stage. We should not engage in any truck with them by which the release of hostages is in return for a pledge never to use our air power. That would be a mistake.

In the short term, as the Prime Minister said, our task is to secure the release of the hostages without rewarding the hostage taker.

Inevitably, this debate allows us to take stock of the medium and longer-term strategy in Bosnia. I think that the beginning of understanding in this matter—indeed, of humility—is to recognise that all options are fraught with difficulty and that there is no difficulty that is not vast in its character and complexity.

Undoubtedly, there have been errors of judgment and there has been indecision at almost every turn by the international community. The early recognition of Croatia without thinking through its evident impact on Bosnia is one example. We were too slow to recognise the need to deter the Serbian army and we were too hesitant when we did recognise it. The contact group has been plagued by divisions and by conflicting interests. The UN involvement has often developed in a piecemeal way, without adequate thought or support.

There is no doubt—there is no point in denying it—that this has been a profoundly unhappy experience for the international community. Yet, the errors and the uncertainty have arisen from the nature of the conflict itself. The choice is, has been and remains: do we stay out and let the conflict be resolved by force or do we become involved in order to provide at least a chance for a diplomatic solution to be found? However long this conflict goes on, that choice remains the same.

I can well understand that public reaction, especially now, favours the first of those choices. Many of our constituents look at this as a faraway war, indecipherable in its rights and wrongs and now putting at risk British lives. But consider the origins of this crisis and the origins of our involvement. There is no doubt that the basic cause of the conflict was the aggressive and violent attempt to bring about a greater Serbia from the ruins of the former Yugoslavia. To those who believe that Bosnia was always a nest of ethnic hatreds, incapable of peaceful coexistence between its different minorities I recommend "Bosnia: A Short History" by Mr. Noel Malcolm. Even allowing for the strongly held views of its author, it is a powerful rebuttal of that myth.

Our involvement began with those vivid pictures of ethnic cleansing, carried out with indescribable brutality. Bosnia is a country whose region borders the European Union; a country in the Balkans where conflict has often spread out to engulf neighbouring states and, indeed, the whole of Europe on occasions; a country whose boundaries were being changed by brute force by an aggressor that went unchecked.

Let us think back to September 1992 and the questions asked in the House at that time. We were warned of millions dying in the winter and of a refugee crisis that could sweep across western Europe. Of course, there has always been a danger that our international response would be governed by television news at any one point in time. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the debate on 9 May there was much criticism of the fact that the United Nations commanders had been overruled on the use of air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. Days later, such strikes were authorised, hostages taken and, of course, questions began to be put the other way around.

I do not believe, however, that the international community realistically could ever have walked away from Bosnia. Having become involved, there is no easy option of walking away. Even withdrawal, without some agreed solution, would be painfully difficult. Our forces may be under attack and the civilians pleading with us to stay. That is not a reason for staying if there are not other reasons, but it is something to weigh in the balance and we should do so.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)

We accept that the priority is to protect British troops and that the deployment of extra troops to do that task must have our full support. The right hon. Gentleman quoted Noel Malcolm. Does he agree that one of the points that Noel Malcolm would have made was that the unbalanced arms embargo, which did not allow the Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves, has in many ways created the problem and that we have had to step into the gap to do the job? Does he further agree that we should now lift that arms embargo to give the Bosnian Muslims the opportunity to defend themselves?

Mr. Blair

No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, although I understand why he put that point to me. I well recall our previous debates on that very topic and the concern—which I believe was justified then and is justified now—that lifting the arms embargo would increase the conflagration rather than limit it. However, I accept that such judgments are difficult.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

I fully understand—as everyone in the House and the country understands—the force of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the humanitarian aspects of this desperate problem. However, bearing in mind the fact that there are terrible civil wars taking place in Angola, Cambodia, Kurdistan, Tibet and Chechnya, among others, is British foreign policy to be based on humanitarian considerations, resulting in our having to send armies to all the countries where civil wars break out? If not, what is it about Bosnia that makes it so different from all the others?

Mr. Blair

I do not believe that that is a compelling case for withdrawal from Bosnia and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. It is always possible to say that we should have intervened in other conflicts and there can be debates about that. However, the Bosnian conflict is in Europe and the consequences could spread to neighbouring European states. We have to make a judgment about where our national interest lies and take humanitarian concerns into account. I believe that that judgment is overwhelmingly in favour of involvement.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Three weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that there was risk of a war that would range the United States and Russia on different sides. If that was true and if there was such a foreseeable risk, is not it unbelievable that there should be any possibility of withdrawing our troops? Was not that argument simply thrown in to justify an intervention that at first hand was done on humanitarian grounds alone?

Mr. Blair

Those judgments are best made by those on the ground, but the hon. Gentleman should put that intervention to the Defence Secretary when he begins to reply to the debate. I have to say to him and his hon. Friends who are advocating, in effect, that we withdraw—that we walk away from this—that I do not believe that that would have been in the remotest way acceptable those two or three years ago when we first became involved.

I do not believe that the question is whether we have a responsibility in this area; I believe we do and I also believe that we have a responsibility to explain that to the people whom we represent. The question is not whether we have a responsibility but how we discharge it and what are its limitations.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blair

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will make some progress. I may give way later.

From the beginning, we have ruled out a role as combatants, taking sides to fight the war. I believe that that is right. Indeed, it is an inexorable consequence of the nature of the situation. For example, simply in military terms, if we compare it with Kuwait, the war there was relatively easy to fight on what was effectively a sand table in the desert. Here, the terrain is unremittingly hostile to outside involvement. The roads and supply lines run through valleys surrounded by wooded hills. It is natural guerilla territory. The fighting force needed would be vast.

It is worth bearing it in mind that the United States has no ground troops in Bosnia. The brunt would therefore fall on France and Britain, and there is just no consent to such a commitment. The entire UN mandate would have to be changed from one of limited engagement for humanitarian and diplomatic purposes to active participation on the side of one of the combatants. I do not believe that that is desirable or feasible.

Our responsibility, therefore, is, and should remain, to enforce the current UN mandate in order to increase the possibility of a negotiated settlement without becoming involved in open-ended combat. That is our strategic, diplomatic and military aim. So long as the United Nations presence in Bosnia is conducive to that end, it should remain.

Let us for a moment assess the role of the UN and what it has achieved. Has it made a difference, and can it continue to do so? That is the question that we need to ask to determine whether we remain.

I do not believe that there can be any serious dispute over whether the UN presence has helped: it has. The policy of containment has, by and large, worked: Macedonia is free of fighting; the awful possibility of general conflict in the Balkans has been avoided; humanitarian aid has helped hundreds of thousands to survive; some semblance of normality has returned to central Bosnia. The Croat-Muslim conflict has been halted, for which, I may say, British troops bear much of the credit. It is worth pointing out that they have been instrumental in Bosnia in reconnecting gas, water and electricity and in rebuilding schools like those at Vitez. Anyone who, like those Conservative Members, doubts whether the United Nations presence has made a difference should ask those on the ground—soldiers or civilians.

Most important, slowly but surely, as a result of this, President Milosevic and Belgrade have been detached from the Bosnian Serbs. This is surely of central importance and it gives the best prospect of pressure on the Bosnian Serbs. That could not have been foreseen or achieved without that United Nations presence; and, of course, the contact group plan for Bosnia has at least gained the acceptance in principle of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.

No one doubts, as, indeed, the Prime Minister said earlier, that withdrawal must remain an option if we are advised by our military commanders that their utility is spent or that it is too dangerous for the safety of the men. A definite prospect of some diplomatic movement is essential to prevent there being diminishing returns over time of the UN presence. Without such a prospect, the Bosnian Government have an incentive to try to recapture lost territory and the Bosnian Serbs to pursue their aim of an independent Serbian state. The gains under a UN presence have, I believe, been substantial.

Let us contemplate the impact of a withdrawal now. If we were to announce from the House that we were to going to withdraw, what would be the impact? It would reward the hostage takers. That is a great message, is it not, to send from the international community? It would be terrible to do such a thing. The United Nations would be utterly humiliated for this and future conflicts, the Bosnian Serbs would begin a major offensive and, despite whatever reports there are, the best advice that I can make out is that they might well win in such an offensive. Would Croatia remain stable, or Kosovo or Macedonia? Would Turkey and other Muslim states remain aloof? These are serious considerations and we must weigh them in the balance when we come to our decision.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Kosovo. He will know that it is widely reported that there are considerable diplomatic efforts to make Milosevic recognise Bosnia, as a result of which sanctions would be raised. That would still leave the Kosovo problem without our having any leverage. Is not that a real difficulty?

Mr. Blair

I agree that it is a real difficulty but it should not prevent us from increasing the pressure on President Milosevic to recognise Bosnia because of the impact that would have on the conduct of the Bosnian Serbs.

If we say that the case for staying remains, I believe we must examine how we take firm and clear steps radically to improve the United Nations' position and thus that of our forces. First, the UN mandate should be enforced with clarity and consistency. Mixed messages on the use of force are not helpful and, where they are used, the consequences of their use in terms of retaliation should be carefully provided for. If they are not, the impact of those forces becomes significantly diminished.

Secondly, we must surely back up the UN mandate with the men and weapons necessary to achieve it. For example, the safe area resolution of the UN was passed in June 1993. It was thought at the time that a minimum of some 15,000 personnel was necessary to enforce it. Around 7,000 were promised and, a year later, there were barely 6,000. If we are to enforce that mandate and hold to it, we must make sure that the resources are there, available to do the job properly.

Thirdly, I think that there is a very strong case for the safe areas to be demilitarised. This has surely been a central weakness until now. It has meant that the Bosnian Government have been able to continue fighting from out of the exclusion zone and has loosened the impression of the UN's even-handedness.

Fourthly, we should consider, as I am sure the Foreign Secretary is, how we tighten sanctions still further. In particular, do we have the necessary monitors along the Serbian border to ensure that weapons and fuel cannot get through?

Fifthly, the Government should examine carefully the suggestion of my hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary for ways in which we can counter the virulent nationalism of the Bosnian Serb media and others, which has played such a part in stoking up hatred among the various groups. It is a sensible suggestion worthy of examination.

Above all, the UN's presence can act only as a platform for a diplomatic peace effort. It is now almost a year since the contact group plan was promulgated. The unity of the contact group is the key to its effectiveness. There has to be a major effort to resolve differences within it, both for Russia and for the United States in the increase of pressure on Belgrade. Any increase in military capacity must be accompanied by new investment in diplomacy. We should see whether out of this fresh crisis a clearer, firmer strategy can be produced with the political will to achieve it.

The settlement proposed by the international community in Bosnia has already had its configurations partly determined by battle. We should reflect on what would happen if we allowed the boundaries of Bosnia or any part of former Yugoslavia to be determined solely by force. What message would that send? We must look at the disputes over borders and ethnic groupings just in that region of the world alone; between Turkey and Greece, Greece and Macedonia, Albania and Serbia, Hungary and Romania over Transylvania, and Slovakia and Hungary. If we allowed such force to replace the rules of international law, the reputation of the United Nations would slide into the same abyss into which the League of Nations eventually fell.

Naturally today, the House unites in its support for our troops and its demand that the hostages, so wickedly seized, should be returned. That is our vital national interest and we shall protect it. Britain has always been a country willing to lift its eyes to the far horizon and judge its actions by their immediate impact not only on ourselves but on world events and history. The decisions that we take are of momentous import for the world and its order and stability. Let us ensure that those decisions are the right ones, for we shall live with their consequences.

3.31 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

There are many questions about what has happened over the past three years in Bosnia and about Britain's part in it that we could address in this debate, but with British and other United Nations troops being held hostage and with our forces in Bosnia in an increasingly precarious position, such questions are best left for another day. What is vital is not what has happened, or a review of history, or what mistakes have been made, but what happens now. Our first duty, as the Prime Minister has rightly said, is quite clear. Our first duty at the moment is to those who are in Serb hands. They must be our primary consideration and nothing that we say in this debate should damage their chances of return.

There is no point, of course, in pretending that there is an easy solution. There is not. A military answer to the hostage problem is now—probably—increasingly difficult. In the last analysis, decisions have to be left to the commanders on the ground. They are the only ones who know what is possible and what is advisable. They will have their contingency plans and we must have the patience to let them take effect. Our job is to back the actions which they take and which they feel it is right to take. As the Prime Minister also rightly said, there may well be times when silence is the best kind of response in the face of what happens over the next few weeks and months.

It seems probable that the most likely route to freeing those who are now held is the diplomatic one. If that is the case, the roles of Serbian President Milosevic and the Governments of Russia and Ukraine are absolutely vital. The strong line taken by the Russian envoy Aleksandr Zotov is, in this context, a very welcome sign. A key ingredient to the success of this diplomatic operation will be for the Bosnian Serbs, who have committed this barbarous act of provocation, to hear a single, firm and united response from the international community. In Britain, that united message should come from all parties.

The Government are entitled to expect our support in that situation, and they will get it—although I wish that they had been rather more definite about the role and intention of the new deployment than they appear to have been so far. There is a lack of clarity that gives the impression, rightly or wrongly, of a decision hastily made. That could add to the military muddle on the ground and create misunderstandings in the minds of both the Bosnians and the Bosnian Serbs that might impede that deployment, and perhaps even get in the way of our best efforts to release hostages.

Nevertheless, on Sunday the Prime Minister responded to a request from the commanders on the ground, and he was right to do so. The reinforcements that have been committed to Bosnia will be a signal to the Bosnian Serbs of the seriousness of our intent. Those reinforcements will strengthen the capacity of British and United Nations troops to protect themselves—and, we are told, they provide the necessary cover for a withdrawal should one become unavoidable. For reasons that I shall explain in a moment, I believe that withdrawal should be the last option, because it is the worst option.

I hope that the other major troop-contributing nations will now match Britain's actions. I hope especially that the United States will make the commitment that it has so far failed to make on the ground. No single act would better show the solidarity of the international community or do more to convince the Bosnian Serbs of the seriousness of their position than the commitment of United States ground troops to the operation in Bosnia at this time.

The next questions that we must consider are: how are the troops to be deployed, and—this is crucial—under whose command? The technical position is clear: Britain is entitled to take such actions as we think necessary to ensure the protection of our troops, so it would be perfectly in order for us to station troops in Bosnia under sole British command if we wished to do so. But in my judgment to do so would be to misjudge both what has happened and what needs to happen next.

The events of the past few days have irreversibly changed the position of the UN in Bosnia. Any attempt to fudge the consequences of that change will lead only to further humiliations, further risks for troops on the ground, further muddle over the mandate, and the continuing descent of the UN operation in Bosnia into chaos, farce and eventual retreat.

There are now two routes leading to withdrawal. There is the quick route of a decision to leave today, and there is the long, slow, painful route whereby we would keep on muddling through. In short, we are now being forced by events to take the decisions that we should have taken three or four years ago. There are those who will argue about the benefits of a withdrawal—no doubt we shall hear them later. I am not one of those.

I accept the fact that there may come a time when our commanders on the ground tell us that there is nothing further that we can do without unacceptable risk. Then we shall be forced to go. But we should be absolutely clear about what the consequences would be.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown

Will the hon. Gentleman let me make a little progress?

Withdrawal will be difficult along the best part of 100 miles of dirt track over the Dinaric alps, and it will almost certainly be extremely costly, both in materials and, almost certainly, in lives. However, it is the consequences of withdrawal even more than its difficulties that make it such a dangerous option.

A United Nations withdrawal without assuring the means by which the Bosnians could defend themselves would leave the United Nations-recognised state of Bosnia to be obliterated by the Serbs, aided by the Croats—probably in short order. It would mean abandoning about 1 million Bosnian Muslims to their fate, with a degree of suffering, visible on our television screens, that would be unacceptable and intolerable to a civilised people.

Withdrawal would almost certainly lead to a wider Balkan war, with incalculable consequences beyond that. It would send a signal to the Muslim world which could be very damaging for world peace in the longer term; and it would be to collude in the death of the United Nations as an organisation capable of contributing to world peace—just as certainly as the failure to confront aggression in Abyssinia marked the end of the League of Nations, with consequences that we know all too well.

What is at risk in this crisis is not just the preservation of the Bosnian state; it is the preservation of the ultimate authority of the UN. Right hon. and hon. Members might like to reflect that there would be consequences closer to home for us in Europe as well, for Europe would have participated in the destruction of the best model it has of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state. And in an age when fascism and destructive nationalism are once again on the march, we would have sent out a signal that, once again, we do not have the will to stop them.

Mr. MacShane

Twice the right hon. Gentleman has referred to commanders on the ground taking decisions about air strikes and deciding whether British troops should be withdrawn. I had rather hoped—based on the first two speeches today—that those decisions would be taken by the elected leaders of this country and by this House.

Mr. Ashdown

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of how military operations are conducted. Politicians set the parameters; military commanders operate within them and take the battlefield decisions. The Prime Minister clearly and rightly set out the conditions in which air strikes could be used. Within those conditions, the timing of the air strikes is then set by the commanders on the ground. In the same way, as the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party has just said, it is the commanders on the ground who will make recommendations as to whether the mandate that we set for them can be carried out without unacceptable risk, and if not, as to whether it is then—but not before—time to think about withdrawal. I should have thought that was clear to anyone with an iota of knowledge of these matters.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Is the right hon. Gentleman's policy, then, that he is prepared to use British troops not just for humanitarian purposes but in a combat role to impose peace on those who will not be pacified and to punish wrongdoing when there has been wrongdoing on both sides? Is he not being rather free with British lives?

Mr. Ashdown

The hon. Gentleman may not realise this, but the second part of the UN resolution under which our troops operate in Bosnia already allows punitive action in the case of aggression. He is clearly unaware that the circumstances he describes are in effect at the moment.

I am aware—perhaps painfully aware—of the price that will have to be paid if the UN stays on in Bosnia. That price would have been far lower if appropriate action had been taken three years ago. I understand very well that there are those who say that we should cut our losses: the cost of staying is far too great. To them I would say that the cost of going is in the long term much greater.

When we make this decision, that is the calculation that we shall have to arrive at. It is clear, however, that we shall not be able to return to the old mandate—the old terms of engagement. They were never tenable in any case, not least because they pointed in two opposite directions at the same time—humanitarian aid and punitive action. One of the major flaws in the whole Bosnian operation is the fact that military action on the ground has seemed consistently to have neither co-ordination nor even connection with diplomatic action being taken in Geneva. All that now has to change.

All that has now changed—whether we like it or not. The Bosnian Serbs are now calling the hostages UN prisoners of war. They have made it clear that they will now treat the UN as an enemy. Even if they had not done so, we could surely never again risk placing UN peacekeepers or observers at their mercy, as we have seen the way in which they have exploited the present mandate to take hostages to prevent international action.

A new mandate, a new set of priorities and clear terms of engagement for the military operation in Bosnia will inevitably now be required. That means being prepared to protect the areas which we have defined as safe areas. It means giving our troops on the ground a free hand to defend themselves when they are subject to threats or aggression from Bosnian Serbs, or anybody else. It means consolidating our position into more defensible locations.

There are difficulties involved in that, and I do not underestimate them. But whatever they are, that seems to be the only rational means now open to us. We must reshape the Bosnian operation in a way which gives the UN commanders a clear and achievable aim which is consistent with the UN's diplomatic effort.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the financial cost and the cost in lives. Does he feel that this country has been asked to carry too great a share of the burden? Is not it incredible that the three wealthiest countries in the UN—the United States, Germany and Japan—are not contributing anything, while we are now contributing the most in men and in treasure?

Mr. Ashdown

I take the view that this country has once again had to operate to make something work, and I am rather proud of that. The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise that our membership of the Security Council lays upon us certain duties which would not necessarily be incumbent upon us were we not members. We gain an advantage from our membership, but we also have a responsibility.

I am aware that what I have been saying—

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to make some progress.

What I am saying about a new and clearer mandate carries with it some hard choices. I cannot judge at this moment what the likely options will be, as they will have to be established by the commanders on the ground when they are deciding what they believe to be possible. But whatever the sacrifices involved in changing the posture and the mandate of our troops, they are far less than those involved in withdrawal, or in leaving things as they are, which—in the end—inevitably amounts to the same thing by a longer route.

In the meantime, the process of declaring the so-called Republika Serbska an international pariah state should be accelerated. A key element of that would be the early recognition of Bosnia by President Milosevic, and the stationing of UN observers on the Drina and Sava rivers to monitor embargo breaches into Serbian Bosnia. It is my view that if those two matters were satisfactorily concluded, the international sanctions on Serbia proper could be relaxed, or in due course—perhaps consistent with the situation in Kosovo—lifted.

There are those who will say that all of that is far too difficult, or that we should just muddle through for a little longer. But muddling through for the past three years has got us here. Muddling through will mean months—perhaps years—of being controlled by events, rather than controlling them. Muddling through means more humiliations, more retreats and more soldiers in the firing line in pursuit of an aim that has never been identified and a mandate that has become impossible to fulfil.

Whatever the difficulties, the only rational response to the events of the past week is to face up to the consequences of those events. We must reshape the Bosnian operation in a way which gives the commanders a clear and achievable aim which is consistent with the diplomatic efforts in Geneva. That is the only way in which the UN will have any hope of pulling success out of this disastrous muddle.

Mr. Gale

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way now?

Mr. Ashdown

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am reaching the end of my remarks.

This speech amounts to support for the Government's position and for what appears to be the growing NATO consensus. That is the right thing to do when British troops are committed to the field. If that position does not work—and I have my suspicions about that—we may in short order be once again faced with the decision that we ducked three years ago, of whether or not we are prepared to take sides against aggression. None of this will make any sense to our commanders on the ground or to our people until we are prepared to face that decision. If the steps now planned succeed in avoiding that choice, well and good. If they do not, we must be clear that it will always be preferable to take sides against aggression than to run away in the face of it.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Before I call Sir Edward Heath, I must tell the House that because of the great demand from right hon. and hon. Members to contribute to this debate, speeches made between 7 pm and 9 pm must be limited to 10 minutes.

3.50 pm
Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

I am sure that the whole House agrees that it was right for the Prime Minister to ask you, Madam Speaker, to recall the House this afternoon, so that we could debate what he rightly described as a serious situation. He explained clearly the thoughts in his mind and emphasised that we started this as a humanitarian act. We have achieved a great deal, working with other countries, and I am certain that work should continue as long as physically possible. The Prime Minister emphasised the protection that we also provided and stated that additional British forces are going to Bosnia to strengthen that protection. That is also justifiable, provided it can be properly undertaken and achieves the results that we require.

When 300 soldiers from different countries were taken hostage, I had to ask myself what was the organisation that allowed that to happen. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] It is astonishing to anyone who has served in the forces, particularly during a war, that those troops could have been exposed in that way, taken and kept. That matter needs urgent attention.

In such a debate, one point always arises. It was dealt with by the Prime Minister when he said that we cannot impose a solution by force—that we cannot do it by going to war. That is critical to the whole of the Government's attitudes and policies. It is critical also in the minds of the people of this country and of the worried parents of the hostages. In that, the Prime Minister is absolutely right.

The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) refused to put it that way. He said that we missed opportunity after opportunity, that we ought to have been stronger and that we should have tackled the situation. That means going to war—there is no other interpretation of that which the right hon. Gentleman has been saying with great force. I cannot accept that; nor will the people of this country accept the position that he described.

Mr. Ashdown

The right hon. Gentleman has great experience of military matters and every other matter, so he will understand that the appropriate thing is to take the right action at the right time. He might care to reflect on the fact that every single action that I commended to the Prime Minister—having first visited Sarajevo in August 1992—was said by him to be impossible. Months later, when it was too late for them to have any effect, the Prime Minister took those actions—putting in troops, undertaking and supporting humanitarian operations, and establishing air and weapons exclusion zones. All those actions were said to be impossible, but all were subsequently taken—but too little, too late.

Sir Edward Heath

Even if I cannot say it so forcefully, that does not alter the fact that the right hon. Member for Yeovil refuses to acknowledge that what he is advocating now is that we should be prepared to go to war, and that is something about which he must be honest. The Prime Minister has emphasised this, and quite rightly.

As for the internal situation, the Prime Minister emphasised quite rightly that it is now absolutely impossible to decide between the merits and the faults of one group as against another. I know that there are right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who support particular groups in the former Yugoslavia. I respect their decisions, and they know the area—often very intimately—that they are supporting. But if one looks at the whole picture, as we have to today, and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done, one will see that it is now impossible to judge and say, "These are the people who ought to be supported for a particular reason." The right hon. Gentleman does not share that view, but that is certainly my view.

Nor can I accept some of the exaggerations. This will not be the end of the United Nations. The United Nations has had to face other great problems as well. It had to face them in Vietnam, the middle east, Africa—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Sir Edward Heath

Somalia, yes. Because it did not achieve its aims entirely—sometimes not at all in the case of Vietnam—it was not the end of the United Nations. I suggest that we look at this reasonably and not with exaggeration.

Nor do I believe that, if we act sensibly in the present situation, there is any great danger that the conflict will spread over a lot of countries adjacent to or near Yugoslavia. Turkey has its hands full at the moment; it is not going to join in the conflict, and nor will the countries surrounding Yugoslavia. I think that one has to look sensibly and make a balanced judgment about what will happen in that particular part of the world.

Next, we come to the question of a peaceful solution and a negotiated settlement. I do not share the view which has been expressed that we have not been earnest about this matter. Lord Carrington and Lord Owen have worked extraordinarily hard and very earnestly. What we have to face realistically is that this situation is based on decades of conflict and it cannot be solved and resolved overnight. That does not alter the fact that we have to keep up the efforts to the greatest possible extent. It may be that, as we saw earlier with a smaller country helping in the middle east, someone skilled from a smaller country than the powers directly involved would have a better chance of influencing these people in getting a settlement. We do not know, but if it is being reconsidered, it is worth trying. I suggest that that approach might be looked at by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his colleagues as well.

Then we come to the question of Russia and the help that it could give. It is a practical question. Russia has always objected to the bombing, and it is the bombing that has brought about the present situation. We know that many of our commanders were also opposed to the bombing, because they believed that it was dangerous for the civilian population, that it was very difficult to control militarily, and now, as we have seen, it has caused intense antagonism among the Bosnian Serbs.

The Prime Minister committed himself strongly to the fact that the hostages cannot be freed by an arrangement over bombing. Very well; that is now on the record. But it does not alter the fact that somebody else might deal with the bombing and then get the hostages out, for everybody concerned, not just ourselves. If another country intervenes and is able to persuade the Bosnian Serbs that bombing will not be resumed in that form, there is a chance that we can get a solution to this particular problem, as well as starting on a political settlement for the whole affair.

We come finally to the Prime Minister's statement that there can be no question of going to war. That is the crux of the matter. The Leader of the Opposition said, "Of course we must stiffen up here; we must be better there; we must be much more courageous there." Yes, but we will always come to the question, "But are you prepared to go to war?" And the answer must be no.

3.59 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I welcome the decision to recall the House and I can understand the Government's reasons for doing it. Not only are the hostages held, but they are held following air strikes that the Government supported. I do not say that they authorised them, but they supported them. The Government also have to consider carefully what foreign policy should be followed in such situations and, as the Prime Minister said, this affects the future of Europe and how its security can be assured.

However, nothing that has been said so far has clarified in my mind the objectives behind the decision to send more troops. Is it to release the hostages? If so, how is that to be achieved? Is it to maintain and develop humanitarian aid? If so, how is that to be achieved? Is it to defeat Serbia? The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) said that if at the back of our mind is the defeat of Serbia, which is clearly what the leader of the Liberal Democrats wants, that can only mean war. Is that one of the objectives? Is one of the objectives to impose a settlement? Is it to cover a withdrawal?

It is a very great pity that this debate should take place without some historical background being set against which we can judge what has happened. The only person who came near to providing such a background was the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who talked about decades—indeed, centuries—of conflict. The Turks controlled the area. The Austro-Hungarian empire was there. The Germans established a fascist Croatia during the war. Later, the German Government recognised Croatia. The British Government went along with that decision, it is said because of a concession over the social chapter. [Hon. Members: "Rubbish."] Whatever the truth is, there was some negotiation that took a reluctant British Government into recognition of Croatia. Those factors have to be taken into account if we are to assess the motivation and strength of feeling of the warring parties in the old Yugoslavia.

I do not accept for one moment that the only options open are to fight—the Liberal Democrat view is that ultimately we shall have to fight and that we should have done better to fight three years ago—or to withdraw, which is, I understand, the view of some on the Conservative Benches who ask what British interest there is in remaining. My view is straightforward: it is that we should now build policy around the only things that can be done in a civil war—and it is time we got it straight—which are to provide humanitarian aid, mediation, arbitration and negotiation and an arms embargo to ensure that more arms do not get into the area. That is all that we can do.

The first thing that one can do is to provide humanitarian aid. I looked up the history of the Red Cross—because the Red Cross never needs air strikes to back up its work. As I learned this morning, it was set up after the slaughter on the battlefield of Solferino in 1861 and, from 1863 to today, no one has ever doubted that the Red Cross is independent and neutral and provides help for all the victims of war. That is all that can be done in a civil war—unless we follow the fight or withdraw options, both of which I reject.

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Benn

No. I am speaking briefly because I am told that 37 right hon. and hon. Members want to speak and my point can be briefly put.

The second thing that can be done is to provide mediation. In the case of a civil war, we need someone who is prepared to talk to both sides, to listen and to try to bring them together. Whether Lord Owen was the right person—

Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Benn

That is what I am saying: the only thing that the international community can do is to mediate.

Ms Short

I was asking my right hon. Friend to give way

. Mr. Benn

I am sorry.

Ms Short

My right hon. Friend keeps talking about civil war. Is not the truth of the matter that there has been aggression and a breach of international law? The attempt to build a Greater Serbia breaches international law. It is the duty of the United Nations to uphold international law, otherwise we have chaos. What is happening is not just a civil war.

Mr. Benn

I know the argument that my hon. Friend advances. The view is widely shared among Opposition Members that this is not a civil war, but an act of aggression by Serbia against the Bosnian Government. But, if the Serbian Government recognise Bosnia, that will not end the war in Bosnia; it will still be a civil war, with the Bosnian Serbs fighting. The suggestion—which that great peacemonger Michael Foot seems to have overlooked—that the present position is a direct parallel with the position of Czechoslovakia in 1938 strikes me as wholly false. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup—the former Prime Minister—nods, because he remembers that and remembers the stand that he took against appeasement at the time.

Mr. Hargreaves

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Benn

I will, but reluctantly.

Mr. Hargreaves

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is seeing fair play.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Red Cross. On a number of occasions, the Red Cross has expressed its concern about its own members being taken hostage in just such circumstances as these.

Mr. Benn

I am not saying that people who exercise a humanitarian function do not get killed; they do. The Red Cross, however, has never corrupted its own purpose or destroyed its credibility by inviting someone to launch air strikes when its workers are killed.

I am making an extremely serious point. As others have pointed out, this is not the only civil war in the world. Some we have disregarded altogether, but in the case of the former Yugoslavia we have become very much involved—correctly in the first instance, I believe, through the provision of humanitarian aid. I am saying that the air strikes have caused the problem, and may have destroyed the humanitarian function—unless we now clarify what our purpose is.

My third point concerns the arms embargo. I read in a newspaper the other day that the United States supplies 72 per cent. of all the arms that are sold around the world, and provides arms in 45 of the 50 regional conflicts taking place in the world. The President, however, sits in the White House and—because he does not want to send in American troops—authorises and encourages air strikes.

Perhaps the Prime Minister cannot say it publicly, but I should be very surprised if he were not warning Washington on the telephone, "Do not do it again or we shall be in deeper trouble." The air strikes were the occasion for the taking of hostages—whom the Serbs now call prisoners of war, because they say that the United Nations has declared war on them—and the air strikes are what now prevent the resumption of the humanitarian role.

I have always thought the arms trade the most criminal trade in the world. Unlike terrorism and drugs, it is sponsored by Governments. Hon. Members may have read the other day that about a quarter of the arms that we sell abroad are covered by the Export Credits Guarantee Department, and the recipients never pay for them. The British taxpayer pays for the supply of those arms.

I have already put this point to the Prime Minister; let me put it again, as vividly as I can. We cannot have British or French soldiers in blue berets acting as humanitarians, and pilots in blue helmets bombing: that is not a sustainable position. That issue must be clarified.

I am also not happy about NATO's taking over the role of the United Nations. We are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations, which—as the House must know—was set up to secure the peaceful settlement of differences. I was much moved at the time, as I still am when I reflect on the UN's charter. NATO cannot take over the agency responsibility for the UN; if it does, I envisage many other dangers. NATO may, for instance, aspire to play a larger part in what it calls out-of-area functions, as part of the new world order. That is not at all what the United Nations is about.

What can we do in the House? We have absolutely no power in the matter. In sending troops, the Prime Minister used the royal prerogative of war making. We have no vote on that, for he is not consulting the House today. This is a prerogative power that successive Prime Ministers have used to commit our forces to what may be conflicts abroad. We can debate the matter, like the media, and at the end a sort of Jeremy Paxman will bring the debate to a conclusion; or we can express a view in the Lobbies.

I do not know whether other hon. Members will join me, but tonight I intend to vote against what the Government have done, first, because I think that the Government's policy up to now has endangered the hostages and, secondly, because the uncertainties of our current objectives could put the hostages in greater danger. I do not believe that those of us with no governmental responsibility would be representing the people of the country, including the troops and their families, if we were to give the Government a blank cheque to do what they like with our soldiers in a situation of exceptional danger. Therefore, if the opportunity presents itself, I intend to divide the House for the reasons that I have given.

4.9 pm

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

I am very glad that the Leader of the Opposition recognised in his speech the true origins of the horrific saga whose consequences we are discussing today. As he said, those consequences lie in the vicious dream of greater Serbian expansionism, and with those Serbians and their sinister intellectual backers who dreamed up the idea of smashing the Yugoslav federation and of turning areas of relative peace—contrary to the general mythology, families and villages had lived in peace for many years—into areas of ethnic hatred and horror. We should never forget that when we try to analyse how on earth we should wind down the spiral of hatred which has been escalated so viciously by those who are bent on ethnic cleansing.

On this occasion, the media, as is their wont because it is more entertaining, have sought to portray the debate as a conflict between those who wish to see an immediate disengagement and withdrawal of the troops—I think that that would be extremely difficult to achieve—and those who believe that we should become involved on a new and larger scale and wage intensive war against the enemy, whoever it may be. Presumably, the enemy is the Bosnian Serbs in this case. As usual, some of the media analysis is too simplistic; the situation is far too complex to lend itself to that sort of simple labelling.

I believe that the Government are totally correct in acting forcefully to mobilise and send more troops into Bosnia. They have focused the nation's attention—and I hope that of the whole House, whether or not the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) divides the House—on our determination to see the hostages returned unharmed.

However, it is not merely a question of returning all of the United Nations hostages, including our own soldiers, unharmed—although that is an absolute priority. There is also the question of ensuring that the troops deployed throughout Bosnia—some of whom are scattered in very remote regions from which it would be extremely hard to disengage and escape—are protected from further hostage taking.

As the saga continues—and it will, possibly for many years—there can be no doubt that more hostages will be taken. No one should be surprised by the recent hostage taking, although it has occurred on a larger scale, as hostages were taken during previous conflicts. There were hideous examples of hostage taking during the Gulf war, as people who watched their televisions and read books will know, and we were bound to reach that point in this conflict. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) said, it was predictable. It raises question marks about the efficiency of an organisation that allowed hostages to be taken and, at the very least, it requires a fundamental rethink of the situation.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's appeal, backed by the Leader of the Opposition, that we must show unity in the face of the immediate crisis will be recognised and respected in the House. We must get our hostages out unharmed, and we must prevent a further haemorrhaging of the situation through further hostage taking. In the short term, we must demonstrate that we mean business and that we will not merely retire from the conflict or stand paralysed.

I turn to the medium and longer-term situation, and the reasonable proposition that we should understand how we got into the present difficulties, in order to prevent the situation from worsening further.

I have no doubt that those who propose rethinking the United Nations mandate are right. I am glad to hear that Dr. Boutros-Ghali is rethinking the mandate for the protection force. I understand that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) believes in rethinking the mandate. We shall come in a moment to whether it should be a tougher mandate or a more prudent and limited one.

I could not quite make out whether the Leader of the Opposition wants the present mandate reinforced, as he said at one stage, or whether he is seeking a different mandate for the troops. Apparently, it is all too easy for some of them to be rounded up as hostages.

One thing, however, is clear. It is misleading to describe what the protection forces are doing as a peacekeeping operation, as there is no peace to keep. We recognise—and everyone urged from the start when the British troops were sent in—that there was an important job to do: to protect aid workers, medical supplies and food supplies, and to ensure that men, women and children did not starve and stayed alive. Who could stand against that? We thought that it was the right thing to do—the humanitarian task and the humanitarian role.

What we did not consider at the time—it was not suggested as a likely event, although some of us should have foreseen it—was that the humanitarian role would move from protecting the columns and the aid workers to protecting the troops who were protecting the aid workers, and then to protecting the civilian population in various garrisons and groups, and that ultimately it would become an attempt to maintain neutral ground where there is no neutral ground and to impose peace when it remains absolutely clear that the combatants are not prepared to accept peace.

The Bosnian presidency troops certainly would not accept peace if it meant bisecting their country when the international community had promised to keep Bosnia sacred. Croatia, which is out of the news at the moment, certainly would not accept peace if it meant keeping a quarter of Croatia out of the hands of the Croatian central Government. Those varieties of peace would never be accepted and could not be maintained.

It is completely unfair to ask our troops, or UNPROFOR troops generally, to keep such a peace or attempt to impose it, particularly when the diplomats have notably failed even to get it accepted around the negotiating table.

Mr. Ashdown

Surely the right hon. Gentleman was not quite right to say that none of the sides would accept peace. The Bosnian Government have committed themselves to what the international community believes would be a just peace—the five-nation contact group plan. The Serbs have not.

Surely considering whether we are prepared to take sides against aggression does not mean going to war, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. There is broad battlefield parity between Bosnian and Serb forces, but surely, when we assess our attitudes, the fact that the Bosnian Government have accepted what the international community regards as a fair peace, and the Bosnian Serbs have not, needs to colour our attitude.

Mr. Howell

I stand corrected. It is perfectly true that the Bosnian presidency troops—we keep calling them the Bosnian Muslims, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, they are not entirely Muslims, or even dedicated Muslims and Islamics in the sense that we see them in parts of the Maghreb—said that they were prepared to accept a settlement which would involve some partition of their country. I find that difficult, and I rather suspect that the small details of that peace proposal would reveal that the Bosnian presidency thought it would not involve partition and that the Bosnian Serbs had every intention it would, so I have little faith that any such peace would stick for a moment.

Most, if not all, of us recognise that, in facing the most hideous choices between the bad and very bad, my right hon. Friends in government have taken a bold and courageous step—the only one open to them in the short term—but in the longer term we have to rethink the situation in which so-called peacekeeping troops are scattered around and vulnerable to precisely the immense dangers into which they have been plunged and which we simply cannot tolerate and allow to continue.

As we have no overall power over what our allies and the United Nations collectively decide, although we have some input, we in the House must suggest what mandate the United Nations should now proceed towards, what objectives we should set ourselves and how to achieve them, and whether military solutions have anything more to add.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Before moving on to future strategies, would it not be more accurate to explain the mandate fully and to accept that one of the parts of the mandate which has led to this situation is the protection of safe havens, and that the troops were not adequate for the task?

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman is right. The safe havens were not mentioned in the original mandate, but the UN came up with the idea later. In some senses, the safe havens have become garrisons, but they are ineffective garrisons. They may be havens, but they are not safe. We saw that with shells whistling into Tuzla the other day, killing 70 people who were drinking coffee in a cafe. That does not amount to a safe haven.

It would be too sweeping to say that full withdrawal from the safe haven areas and from the safe haven role would not add to the bloodshed, because it would, but where we are now adds to the bloodshed. That emphasises the agony of the dilemma—there is blood and mayhem if we do not act and blood and mayhem if we do.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Can my right hon. Friend explain what is so special about Bosnia that we have to commit massive amounts of aid in a rather unclear role, when there are so many other parts of the world where there is ethnic cleansing, massive killing and enormous social distress and starvation? What is so special about this situation?

Mr. Howell

The way in which the question was posed suggests that we have power, and have had power all along, to choose what we do there. The difficulty is that we decided three years ago that there was a humanitarian need. The television cameras showed all the terror, and the cry went out, "Send the troops to protect the aid workers." From that, one step has led to another.

If my hon. Friend asks why we took all those steps, we could spend a long time blaming each other and analysing why the policy makers made mistakes. We are where we are. It is not a matter of choice. No one would conceivably choose to be where we are now if we had a free will in the matter—and, of course, we do not have a free will.

I want to try to move away from the endless analysis of the past which, although it is not totally a waste of time, will not help the hostages or the present situation. I want to suggest some guidelines that we should think of following while we try to shape the next stage of this horror.

Do we have the will? I would be in favour of a huge military operation, if for one moment the will existed to mount such a thing, which could isolate and crush the Bosnian Serbs. I believe that that would remove this terror and horror, and would rapidly remove the danger of a spread of the conflagration.

However, it is totally unrealistic to talk in that way. We do not have the will power to do that, and I doubt whether we even have the military capability. We are talking about a vast area of very difficult terrain and a very determined enemy, who believe that it is their land and that they have been there for 1,000 years. The idea that we could take them on militarily is completely unrealistic. However, that is the way that we are being dragged now, because they say that the UN and the British are their enemies. We must resist the logical temptation to say that, if they think that we are the enemy, we should treat them as an enemy as well, and mobilise more and more forces to do something against them. That would be fatal, and would be disastrous for the hostages now being held as prisoners of war, so they say, by these people.

So the military course is not open to us. The diplomatic course should be open, because, as a nation concerned with the stability of Europe, we have a role to play in ensuring that the conflagration does not spread. We must continue with our diplomatic efforts.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

I would not for one moment want to recommend all-out war, but does not history show us that, with aggressors like these, if we do not stop them sooner, we have to stop them later?

Mr. Howell

That is easy to say; my hon. Friend knows that such phrases trip off the lips. Historical analogies are not good, because history does not necessarily repeat itself. As Mr. Balfour said, historians repeat each other, which is a different thing. We cannot necessarily learn a precise lesson from one era and then apply it to another.

It would be dangerous to assume that, if outside powers declared war on a particular group, conquered them and crushed them, that would solve the problem. It may be that the Bosnian Serbs will be stopped only by force, but if so, we must determine which force. The obvious answer is the people they are fighting.

If there was a military balance on the battlefield, and the Bosnian Muslims had the same heavy weapons as the Bosnian Serbs, the Serbs would think twice before attacking every morning. We would then begin to fulfil the adage in my hon. Friend's question, that the Bosnian Serbs will be stopped only by force—but it would be the proper force.

To date, that has not been possible, because the international community has denied heavy weapons to the Bosnian Muslim troops. They have a few weapons, but they are lightly armed. The precise way that the war in that area has developed shows that the Bosnian Serbs have succeeded in the areas where they have heavy weapons. That has happened every time, which encourages them to attack again. They know that, with heavy weapons, they will succeed.

I know that that view puts me out of line with most European Governments and in line with the American Congress, which appears to be going through various extraordinary moods. However, I have always believed that, if we want even-handedness in the area and to achieve a military stalemate, we should seriously consider non-intervention in arms supplies, so that the two main combatants have equal fire power and respect each other. I do not believe that that would necessarily make life much more difficult for the remaining humanitarian protection forces.

There is a question whether those forces should be expanded. The answer is yes in the short term, for the immediate purpose of getting the hostages out, but no in the long term, because we should return to the original mandate, which was humanitarian protection as far as possible. That is happening in many areas that are away from significant conflict—areas of Bosnia about which we never hear—where our troops are doing magnificent work. They should continue to do so.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, when we come to regroup and rethink the deployment of various troops in Bosnia, it may be possible to concentrate more on the humanitarian role and prevent them from being dragged into this mythical peacekeeping exercise, which leads nowhere and exposes our troops to unacceptable dangers.

We return to the basic point that everyone who has spoken so far in the debate has recognised—that we cannot stay with the present position, where troops are likely to be taken hostage by people they were talking to over breakfast. By lunchtime, the Bosnian Serbs may say, "Come with us: you are hostages." We must ensure that there is a rapid regrouping and reorganisation and, to some extent—although not totally—a withdrawal.

It has been suggested that there has always been conflict in that area, and that the people have always been fighting each other. That is not true—they have been marrying each other and living with each other in villages and communities throughout the Balkan area. They can do that again.

It would be a great pity if the House divided tonight, and I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield wants that. It will send the wrong message. I believe that the situation can be calmed by the judicious use of diplomacy and humanitarian work, but not by clumsy interventions in the name of a peace that does not exist. First, let us work on the diplomacy and put pressure on Milosevic and the Serbian nationalists who began it all, and then gradually try to calm the situation.

4.28 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

This debate brings back memories of the debates on the deployments to the Falkland Islands in 1982 and to the Gulf in 1990. As a member of the first generation of Scots in the whole of recorded history which has not been required to go to war with somebody or other, I always feel a certain anxiety about voting to send other people to regions of conflict.

I have discussed that dilemma with a number of service men in recent years. The consensus among them seems to be that they are glad that we take the issues seriously in the House. However, just as they would not flinch from doing their duty, so they do not want us to flinch from taking the right decisions. I approach the debate in that spirit.

I bring a little experience of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the House this evening, from my two visits there with the Defence Select Committee in February 1993 and March this year, and from the four weeks I spent during the last summer recess driving a truck in an aid convoy run by Edinburgh Direct Aid. I hope to go back in the coming summer recess, but the outlook is rather ominous. Denis Rutovitz, the chairman of Edinburgh Direct Aid, was shot and wounded on the way to Sarajevo with another convoy last month.

We have heard a lot about the failures and difficulties of UNPROFOR, and especially about the shortcomings of the so-called safe areas, which are plainly not safe. The main part of the trouble is that they have never been demilitarised. They are clearly not safe for the civilian populations of those towns, which are subject to regular shelling, sniping, and deprivation of supplies. As we now know to our cost, they are not safe for UN troops either. I will come back to that.

I want to highlight the spectacular successes of UNPROFOR, which are not spoken of enough in the press or anywhere else. First, never let us forget that 3 million people who are, in effect, under siege in central Bosnia— including half a million people who are literally under siege in Sarajevo—have-been kept supplied, at least with basic materials, for the past three years. That would not have been possible without UNPROFOR.

I can tell the House that it is scary enough to be driving around with supplies on those rough, isolated routes through a civil war zone now; it would be far more hazardous without the United Nations patrols that are currently on those roads. I have with me the card that I carried last year that identified me as being under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and asked that everyone should grant me free passage. That card would not be worth much in the absence from those roads of UN warriors and patrols from the UN contingents. It is vital that they should continue in central Bosnia.

The second major success of UNPROFOR is that one lethal part of the three-way civil war has been stopped. The vicious conflict between the Croatian HVO and the Government BiH forces, which claimed hundreds of lives in towns such as Mostar, Gornji Vakuf and other communities, was ended by a United Nations-sponsored truce on 23 February 1994. There is now a peace to be kept in central Bosnia, and that task must continue.

If we were to withdraw the United Nations force now, that fragile peace would be put in jeopardy. It is more than likely that the confederation would disintegrate, and that the Croat-Muslim civil war would break out again. We would be abandoning those 3 million people to an unimaginable fate. After my personal contacts with the decent and heroic people who are running the hospitals, orphanages and caring services of central Bosnia, I would be horrified if we were to abandon them to the mercy of the ethnic cleansers, murderers and rapists who stand ready to prey on this conflict.

That brings me to the third side of the grim Balkan triangle: the Bosnian Serb army. It is undeniably the worst offender, although I stress that it is not the only one. It is the 30 per cent. of the people of Bosnia that has used military superiority to seize 70 per cent. of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina and followed that by savage ethnic cleansing and merciless pressure on Sarajevo and other besieged communities. It has never accepted or respected United Nations resolutions or UNPROFOR, and it is now holding United Nations soldiers, including the 33 Royal Welch Fusiliers, as hostages. It calls them prisoners of war. Peacemakers are being treated as prisoners of war; the Bosnian Serb army is despicable.

Through other channels, such as the Select Committee, I will want to hear explanations of why United Nations military observers and our troops in Gorazde were left in vulnerable positions when the situation was escalating. However, that should probably be addressed in private rather than in the context of this debate. This is just the latest in a long string of outrages perpetrated by these people. They are entirely responsible for the escalation of the conflict that led to the present situation, and the whole world knows it.

The Bosnian Serbs are treating the United Nations with contempt. They are cynically exploiting weaknesses and inconsistency in the United Nations' position. I am afraid that it has to be said that the UN deployment in relation to the Bosnian Serb army has been characterised by muddled thinking and undermanning. Whatever happens, the mandate must be clarified, and I believe that the force should be strengthened to ensure maximum effectiveness and minimum risk in future. There has to be a fundamental reappraisal of the deployment.

Surely the time has come to reconsider some of the humiliating compromises that have been made with the Bosnian Serb army. I offer just one example. UNPROFOR is co-operating with the BSA to enforce the seige of Sarajevo. The United Nations has been manoeuvred into a position in which a Bosnian Serb army liaison officer has absolute control over who and what can go in and out of Sarajevo. He makes the decisions, and the United Nations applies them. Diplomats have been kept off aeroplanes and, recently, 40 pallets of material urgently required by Médcins sans Frontiéres were effectively impounded by the United Nations on Serb instructions at Sarajevo airport for three whole months.

Furthermore, the United Nations is channelling the aid convoys into Sarajevo through Serb checkpoints, where the BSA routinely steals up to 50 per cent. of the loads. Worse, the United Nations cannot even return fire when the BSA uses machine guns and mortars against clearly identified aid convoys with official UNHCR number plates, as happened to my friends in Edinburgh Direct Aid when they went to Sarajevo five weeks ago.

The protection of humanitarian aid is the prime objective of UNPROFOR. That responsibility should not have been abdicated, and should be reaffirmed now. I should like to ask whether the United Nations should go on respecting the status of Bosnian Serb liaison officers while United Nations peacekeepers are being held hostage, but I shall leave that one sticking to the wall.

There is much to say, but I shall confine myself to the most important points. First, the international community has a responsibility to the suffering people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Secondly, the Bosnian Serb leadership is a serious threat, not only to the people of the Balkans but to the security of Europe. We cannot allow a savage, racist, expansionist force to go on doing its worst on the very doorstep of the European Community and of NATO. It is worth mentioning that Hungary—east of Bosnia—is probably going to be joining the European Community shortly, and that, as NATO members, we are committed to the security of neighbouring countries such as Italy and Greece.

It would be folly to turn a blind eye to the unbridled savagery that is taking place in the adjacent territories of former Yugoslavia. Apart from anything else, it would be intolerable and unthinkable for the Security Council of the United Nations to be driven into submission by Mr. Radovan Karadzic and his Administration.

It is clear from today's speeches that some hon. Members regard Bosnia-Herzegovina as what might be described as a faraway place of which we know little, to borrow a phrase from another era of appeasement. We should be learning some lessons from history, perhaps especially in this anniversary year.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a great deal closer than the Falkland Islands, and closer even than Kuwait. It is only a very short flight away, or three days' drive in a truck. I suggest that protecting the people of Bosnia is a vital humanitarian interest, that the collective security and stability of Europe is a vital national interest for all of us in Europe, that respect for the United Nations is a vital international interest, and that the safety of the 33 Royal Welch Fusiliers and the RAF officer is an immediate and direct national priority.

The United Kingdom and France in particular can take special pride in our part in the operation so far. We have not been helped by German diplomacy and, frankly, the United States and the Russians have not exactly covered themselves in glory so far. I hope that they are listening; I hope that they are learning.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)


Mr. Home Robertson

I am just concluding, as I know that many hon. Members want to take part in this debate.

The United Nations operation has reached an absolutely critical stage. We can capitulate to naked aggression and oppression, mainly perpetrated by the Bosnian Serbs, or we can continue to stand up for civilisation and international order. I support the Government's decision to reinforce the United Nations presence in Bosnia. I urge the Government to seek similar reinforcement from other contributing countries and I also urge them to press for a stronger and clearer mandate for the UN force.

As a member of the Defence Select Committee, I shall be looking to the Government to ensure that our forces are deployed with the maximum effect and the minimum risk, the first priority being to get the hostages home. Let us stop talking about withdrawal, which means capitulation to sheer tyranny. We must see this thing through.

4.40 pm
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The House will have listened with great respect to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who spoke of his personal experiences in Bosnia. I am sure that other hon. Members will join me in hoping that when he returns—if he does—in the summer recess, he will be able to do so under the extra security that the Government's measures will provide.

I cannot help reflecting on the fact that this is the second time in five years that the House has expressed outrage about the use of human shields. We expressed outrage during the Gulf war when Saddam Hussein took such action. I remember the importance that we attached to speaking with the clearest possible voice, so that there was no doubt whatever about where the House, the Government and this country stood in defence of our armed forces and the outrage against any taking of hostages.

The lesson that we learned from the Gulf war is that many audiences watch our debates on television, and not only in this country. Saddam Hussein was an avid listener to the House's proceedings, hoping to detect signs of weakness, disunity and encouragement for his cause. I have no doubt that reports will quickly pass to Pale on whether the United Kingdom stands staunchly behind the Government's actions.

I support the Government's action. For very good causes, we have a duty to our forces which are, to use an old phrase, in harm's way. We are clearly concerned to ensure that our hostages, the taking of whom was outrageous, are released immediately and restored to their units.

Despite the few dissenting elements and discordant voices, which echo those expressed in our debates five years ago, when the same war and anti-war parties emerged in the House, I recognise the same spirit among hon. Members that produced the largest majority that I can remember in support of our forces in their time of need. I have no doubt that the same House of Commons will strongly support—if it is needed—our armed forces should they face danger overseas. I welcome the speeches in support of the Government's position made by—of course—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

I say to those who might encourage alternative action that, even if it were possible, I would be appalled by the idea of an immediate withdrawal. It would send a message that blackmail works and that people only have to take hostages to be successful. What an effect that would have on any future United Nations effort. Any discordant group would know that all that it had to do was grab a few people who were deployed for humanitarian, peacekeeping purposes and the will of the free world would dissolve rapidly like the mist. As we know, that would encourage the taking of yet more hostages.

I have been enormously impressed by what has been achieved. I say no more because I bow to the experience of the hon. Member for East Lothian. The House and this country should be very proud of what we have done and the part that we have played. Of course we could have stood aside, of course we could have said, as some did, that the conflict was nothing to do with us, that it was a long way away and that although we could see people dying on television, other people were dying in places that television could not reach. We did what we could and I have no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people— arguably, an even greater number—are alive because of the efforts that have been made.

I respect what has been achieved and I am desperately keen to ensure that, if possible, such work continues. If we send additional forces, which I support, we must be clear about the basis on which we do so. We owe it to those forces to ensure that their rules of engagement and the mandate—whatever phrase is used—are clear. The exercise must not become a one-way delivery system of extra equipment to the warring factions. Many envious eyes will be cast on the 105 mm artillery that we are sending. We had better have some very clear rules of engagement to ensure that any valuable or powerful equipment sent out is properly defended.

The number of troops is not the whole matter. It is interesting to note that we are increasing the number of British troops to the number that the French have, effectively, already deployed. There have been 37 French casualties, and a significant number of the 333 hostages are French. The number of troops sent is no guarantee of security unless people are empowered with the right rules of engagement and the right authority to act to protect their position.

The biggest mistake is to imagine that the previous crisis teaches us all the lessons that we need to know about the current crisis, but the clarity of authority was a major factor in the achievement of the rapid and successful completion of the Gulf war. Although that war was certainly under the authority of the United Nations, there was a very clear command structure. We did not engage in endless public ministerial meetings about exactly when, for example, the air campaign would start. We had the authority to proceed and we managed to achieve an element of surprise. We did not have ministerial meetings in public in Brussels, New York, Washington or elsewhere to determine whether the left hook would be employed for the land attack to outflank the Iraqi defence.

Of course in Bosnia we face a different situation and comparisons cannot be made, but there is no question that such public meetings have put our commanders at a great disadvantage and have made the task on which we have embarked so much more difficult. I therefore hope that, while we will receive considerable advice and persuasion from many countries that are not so involved, the greater responsibility for command and authority will lie with those that are involved, whose troops are present and that are playing their part under the overall authority of the United Nations.

I hope that there is very close co-ordination. I have seen the report that the recapture of the post on the bridge may have been due to a policy change authorised by President Chirac, who ordered that French troops were to cede no more ground and allow no more humiliation. I can understand that reaction in the light of the experiences of the French forces. It is very important that if that is a change of policy—I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make the position clear in his speech—an absolutely co-ordinated view among the UN forces undertaking this important and valuable role is established.

Much has been said already in support of the Prime Minister's decisions, and there is no need to repeat many of the points that have been made, but one lesson that we must learn from the present crisis is the importance of keeping Russia involved. That is crucial, both in the short and long term—in the short term with regard to the immediate position over the hostages and any opportunity that there may be for Russia to play her part in ensuring their release.

With regard to the longer term, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has often illustrated the importance of our role in Bosnia by reminding us how many cemeteries in this country are filled with those who died in a war that arose out of the Balkans. Of course that conflict was partly due to the problems of the Balkans themselves but, in the very nature of a world war, it owed more to the fact that other nations then sought to become involved.

Throughout the cold war it was NATO's great dread that Yugoslavia would collapse when Tito died so that, at a time of maximum tension, that cockpit of the struggle for influence would suddenly present problems. We must be thankful that the crisis that NATO expected did not occur until after the end of the cold war. It is crucial that the improvement in relations that is now possible is maintained, and that we keep the closest possible contacts between ourselves and Russia, so as to ensure that, if things do not work out as we hope, there is no risk of the conflagration ever spreading on the scale that we have seen in the past.

4.51 pm
Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

I represent the constituency in which the Royal Welch Fusiliers' base is now located, at the former RAF base at Brawdy. The families of seven of the 33 hostages live in my constituency. The rest, of course, are scattered throughout Wales. I am sure that other Welsh Members will join me in welcoming the fact that Parliament has been recalled today. It shows the seriousness with which the House takes the hostage issue, and I am sure that that alone will give the families some comfort. Obviously they are extremely worried about the present situation. I am grateful for all the sympathetic comments that have been made by Members from both sides of the House about the families. The whole House shares their concern about their 33 loved ones held hostage in Bosnia.

I understand that the Secretary of State for Defence will wind up, and I should like to draw his attention to a specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) about the location of eight of the 33 hostages. There appears to be some confusion, so will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make inquiries before he winds up? If the situation has not been clarified and the eight hostages have not been located, the families' concern will increase.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), I am no expert on either the immediate circumstances or the long-term background in Yugoslavia—although, having spent two wonderful holidays there, I have a great love for the country. None the less, to me it seems that the description "muddling through" could be applied throughout.

I totally support the Government's position, although many of the families of the hostages are expressing concern and, understandably, may even say that we should withdraw. I appreciate their worries and I understand why they may say that, but withdrawal would be wholly wrong for several reasons.

First, as has been said, withdrawal would give the Bosnian Serbs a signal that such despicable action wins rewards. The safety not only of the other 300-odd Royal Welch Fusiliers but of the other 3,500 British troops and the 7,000 French troops would be put at risk if we decided that such action by the rebel Serbs would be rewarded. If we gave any hint that we were prepared to back down from our current or our proposed position, it would exacerbate the hostages' position.

Secondly, in the wider strategic view, the Balkans are extremely unstable at the moment. I remember being told a story in which a Hungarian was asked, "How many countries surround Hungary?" The answer was, "One— Greater Hungary." Throughout the Balkans, given the wrong circumstances, the ethnic, religious and territorial conflicts could explode, and more countries would be sucked into a conflict that all the resources of the British and French armies could not control or contain.

The United Nations humanitarian aid programme has been successful but unfortunately, because the media like only the bad and the sensational stories, the work that has been going on day in, day out since November 1992 has gone unreported in the main. Sadly, only the tragedies are reported from Bosnia, not the boring but vital everyday successes of delivering aid, reducing conflict and brokering local ceasefires and deals.

That may be why public opinion, as reflected in certain newspaper polls, is that we should pull out. The success of the British and French armies has not been fully reported and only the tragedies, such as that in Tuzla the other day, suddenly appear on our television screens. Then people say, "What a failure that is. The United Nations should be doing more or pulling out." That is understandable if the public's only source of information is our television screens and the other media.

I understand that the position adopted by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister on the bombing cannot be overstated. However, previous bombings have been ineffective. The targets chosen were not of any great import, and an objective view would be that the previous bombing regime did not achieve the aim intended. Undoubtedly the most recent incident was totally counterproductive.

In the long run we may have to review that policy. I hope that if a different mandate is given to the extra troops going to Bosnia, we can establish a more effective method than the relatively indiscriminate use of air power. But, no, it is unfair to say "indiscriminate". The use has not been indiscriminate, but none the less air power can certainly be construed by the Bosnian Serbs as indiscriminate.

Judging from my research and the information that has recently come out of Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia it seems that the Bosnian Serbs are now becoming increasingly desperate. They have had a number of military set-backs in western Slavonia and in Bosnia. The hostage taking, although undoubtedly related to the bombing, may represent a last desperate throw by the Bosnian Serbs. They certainly want the UN, Britain and France out of Bosnia as quickly as possible, and they hope and pray that British public opinion will persuade the Government and this House to withdraw. That would be wrong for the hostages, and strategically wrong in the longer term for Europe and for the millions of people who depend on the humanitarian aid effort.

I am sure that the Government, with the Russians, are actively trying to persuade President Milosevic to use his best influence to ensure that the 33 British hostages and all the other UN hostages are released. That is the best way forward: diplomatic pressure and a show not just of strength but of resolve by the House that we are not willing to accept this sort of action by the Bosnian Serbs.

My priority is to secure the release of the 33 Royal Welch Fusiliers and the RAF officer. I hope that the action on which the Government have embarked will lead to their release as soon as possible, allowing them to come home safely to their families.

5.1 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Mailing)

Opening the debate, the Prime Minister said that the events of the past few days represented a qualitative change in the situation in Bosnia. That judgment is entirely right. I would go as far as to say that, now that the Bosnian Serbs feel at liberty to engage in mass hostage taking against UN personnel, they have made an undeclared declaration of war against UN personnel in Bosnia. That will necessitate substantial changes in the way UN troops are deployed there and in the resources brought to bear to protect them.

Hostages have been taken on a number of occasions before—civilians and service personnel. Based on my experience of one or two of those incidents I would argue that the families of those taken hostage can be assured that the necessary qualities will be brought to bear on their plight—the qualities of a cool head, a calculating mind and a steely determination to see the matter through, however long it takes. I have every confidence that those with the formidable task of dealing with the problem, the Government and their professional advisers in the armed services and the diplomatic corps, will bring every ounce of their professionalism to bear to secure the release of the hostages.

I am also certain that, whatever options or combination of options my right hon. Friends choose to apply, they will have the full support of the House in doing whatever is necessary to secure a successful outcome for the hostages.

As for the UN and its deployment in Bosnia, as we all well know, UN deployments around the world—including hitherto in Bosnia—have always rested on the central assumption that there will be no direct or immediate risk to the safety of the personnel in question. I refer to UN deployments in peacekeeping and humanitarian roles. That is why UN personnel are usually deployed highly visibly and statically, and no attempt is made to conceal their progress along road or air transport routes.

The new situation will necessitate a fundamental reconsideration of this posture. UN commanders in the field will have to try as far as possible to remove the hostage-taking option from the Bosnian Serbs. This House, like other Parliaments elsewhere, would find it unacceptable if such hostage taking were continuously repeated. In effect, around the clock, seven days a week, the UN will have to have at its disposal, at every location where its personnel are deployed, enough fire power to ensure that hostage taking cannot be repeated.

The new situation also calls for a significant concentration of UN personnel. It will inescapably result in a significant reduction in the number of places where those personnel can be deployed, because of the clear need to reduce their exposure and vulnerability. There will necessarily therefore have to be some reduction in the usefulness of the humanitarian work that they can carry out. My right hon. Friends will have the considerable task of judging whether the residual humanitarian role that the UN can perform is viable.

Moreover, it will be essential to provide an altogether different order of protection for the remaining UN peacekeepers. I welcome the steps that the Prime Minister announced today to ensure that the British contingent receives infinitely more protection. My right hon. Friends will have the formidable task of judging whether the extent and longevity of the new commitment of personnel will be tolerable in the context of British armed services and financial resources. For as long as hostage taking and the risk of it remain, these major changes in our approach to UN deployment will be called for—they follow inescapably from the position in which we find ourselves.

I approach the subject of air strikes from a position different from that of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I greatly welcome what the Prime Minister said in response to an intervention—that we shall have no truck whatever with the Serbian attempt to exchange hostages for an undertaking that air strikes will never be used. It would be quite wrong to succumb to that form of blackmail, and I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend rule it out immediately.

As the House is well aware, the utility or otherwise of air strikes has probably been the most hotly debated issue throughout the conflict and the UN's involvement in it. Some people—particularly on the other side of the Atlantic—have given the impression that if only the air strikers were let off the leash, the whole conflict in Bosnia could be rapidly brought to an end. We have taken a different position, and we have constantly advocated caution and care in the use of air strikes.

The pattern of the use of air power in the 50 years since the second world war has demonstrated two things: first, control of the air is indispensable to the protection of ground troops and to the holding and taking of ground; secondly, control of the air alone and the use of air power does not enable one to control the ground unless one is also prepared to make a commitment of ground forces. That commitment has not so far been forthcoming from the international community.

In the context of Bosnia, the limitations of air power are particularly pronounced. Factors such as the terrain, the relative smallness of the targets and the ability to move those targets put considerable constraints on the use of air power. When that is coupled with the vulnerability of UN personnel, the Government's judgment is seen to be entirely right. Air strikes are a blunt weapon which have the undoubted capacity to turn into a boomerang. Following the events of the past 10 days, I hope that our friends on the other side of the Atlantic will make a more realistic assessment of the utility of air strikes.

The House has effectively discussed three options today. In my opinion, only one hon. Member so far has advocated a significant military escalation—the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not in his place now, because I particularly wanted to refer to his speech. The record will show that the right hon. Gentleman called on UN forces to increase their military fire power and activity to defend the safe havens. The defence of the safe havens effectively means that they are physically and, if necessary, militarily protected. It means securing ground and weapons beyond the safe havens to make them fire-free.

If that is to be done effectively, the UN will have to go to war to defend the safe havens. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) was entirely right to state to the leader of the Liberal Democrats that if it is his policy to safeguard militarily the integrity of the safe havens—apparently it is—he should make it clear what the military implications are of that policy. It would mean taking UN forces into a fighting role.

Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Surely it should mean something if the UN designates an area a safe haven. Should not the combatants respect that? If they do not, what is the point of the designation?

Sir John Stanley

I am seeking clarity of the position taken by the leader of the Liberal Democrats. If my hon. Friend is asking me, I would say that we have two choices. We can diplomatically declare a safe haven, while recognising that its integrity may be destroyed militarily—that is the option which the UN, the commanders on the ground and the Governments concerned have adopted—or we can go further and say that we are going to defend militarily the integrity of that safe haven. That appears to be the policy of the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

If that is the right hon. Gentleman's policy, he must spell out the military implications and accept the consequences. We would not merely have to prevent Serb soldiers from getting inside the safe havens, but we would have to do everything necessary to prevent incoming fire of any sort from coming into the safe haven. That would entail a considerable military commitment. There may be some Members who believe that we should make that commitment, but one cannot say that we must protect the safe havens while pretending that that does not have far-reaching military consequences.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman—like all of us—is familiar with UN Security Council resolution 836 of 4 June 1994, which provides for precisely the kind of action to which he has referred. The resolution gives the UN the ability to take the necessary measures, including the use of force, in reply to bombardments against the safe areas by any of the parties or to armed incursion into them or in the event of any deliberate obstruction in or around those areas to the freedom of movement of UNPROFOR or of protected humanitarian convoys. Paragraph 10 of the resolution authorises all necessary measures, through the use of air power, in and around the safe areas in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to support UNPROFOR in the performance of its mandate".

Sir John Stanley

I am well aware of the UN mandate to which the hon. and learned Gentleman has referred. The mandate may say one thing, but the willingness of the leading members of the UN—in particular the United States—to provide the wherewithal to deliver that mandate is not forthcoming. I am afraid that, as the hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware, that is not the only UN mandate which has not been delivered on the ground.

The second option which we have been discussing today is the withdrawal option and—like some hon. Members who have spoken—I strongly oppose withdrawal at present. I believe that withdrawal would result in a significant increase in numbers losing their lives in Bosnia. It would be a dismal course of events if the parliamentary democracies and those who defend human rights were to withdraw after the appalling naked territorial aggression, ethnic cleansing and mass rape and hostage taking—the things which we have been trying to rid Europe of since the events of 50 years ago. I am glad that we are not doing so, at least for the moment.

We are left with the option of remaining. That is a damage-limitation exercise, and I fully appreciate its difficulties and dangers. But it is the only one of the three choices before us that we can follow at the moment. It has some significant advantages. I am certain that it is the option which will result in the least loss of life, and that is a weighty consideration for all hon. Members.

If we left Bosnia now, it could turn into an uncontrolled inferno, and no one could say how high and wide that fire might go. It is a tinderbox, and it has the capacity to spread. We should also remain in Bosnia because we can continue to protect the humanitarian operation which, coupled with the diplomatic efforts we are making, may provide a route to achieving an agreed settlement. We may not get an agreed settlement, but none of the other options provides the means of achieving, by agreement, a settlement of the conflagration. I welcome the statement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made today, and I wish the Government all the very best as they discharge their heavy responsibilities.

5.19 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I say straight away that I believe that the air strikes were justified. Like others, I have argued that military action was necessary to stop designated areas being shelled by Serbian commanders. I took the opportunity on a number of occasions in recent weeks to question the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary about action to safeguard designated areas. Having urged air strikes where appropriate, I am hardly in a position now to say that they were wrong. They were right in all the circumstances.

I well recall the outrage felt by the House and the country when towns and cities in Bosnia were continuously shelled by Serbian military forces. That brutal and deliberate killing of civilians could not be allowed to go on. The British people saw on their television screens the killing of men, women and children—some while queuing for bread in Sarajevo. In those circumstances, it was right and proper for the UN to designate safe areas. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister referred to the slaughter that occurred last week, when 71 people were murdered in Tuzla. No distinction was made between military personnel and civilians. No distinction was made, as was previously, between men, women and children.

How could it be wrong to designate safe areas? The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) says that he does not favour air strikes, but I do not recall any criticism at the time by hon. Members over the designation of safe areas. That innovation was unanimously agreed. If it was right to declare safe areas to stop the killing of civilians, what should be done when Serbian military commanders decide to act in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions? What is the use of designating safe areas unless military force is taken to defend them under the appropriate Security Council resolutions? If the Serbs are simply allowed to shell and murder, what credibility do Security Council resolutions and the United Nations have? If safe areas are designated, military action must be taken in the face of clear defiance by forces determined to ignore the resolutions of the international community.

Mr. Robathan

I take entirely the hon. Gentleman's point about defending safe areas, but perhaps he will work through the logic of his argument. Would he be happy to go to the funerals of 100 of his constituents killed defending a safe area in a civil war? Would he be prepared to write to their mothers and wives to explain why those soldiers died?

Mr. Winnick

I do not see the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's question. I have the deepest sympathy for the relatives of all soldiers killed in Bosnia, particularly British service men and women. I hope that the hon. Gentleman genuinely shares that concern and is not merely making a debating point.

Mr. Robathan

Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?

Mr. Winnick

No, because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

If the international community took the same line as the hon. Gentleman, there would be no purpose at all to any Security Council resolution, or to the United Nations. Any terrorist could threaten a particular action. When the Iranian embassy in London was besieged, the soldiers responsible for that courageous rescue operation could have been killed. According to the hon. Gentleman—who served in the forces—the British Government should have said, "We cannot send in anyone, be they troops or otherwise."

I do not know why my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) compared the Red Cross, which he said never engaged in any form of military action, with the United Nations. I have the highest regard for the Red Cross, which has for more than a century performed great humanitarian work. Newsreels that I have seen showed Red Cross representatives visiting Nazi concentration camps. A show was put on for them, but the Red Cross had no authority. The moment its representatives went away murders continued, of course. If one argues that the UN, regardless of any outrages, should serve as nothing more than the Red Cross, there is no need for the UN. We could have an enlarged Red Cross instead.

Apart from outrages in designated safe areas, there is also the ethnic cleansing to which hon. Members referred, atrocities and rapes. As in all military conflicts, the Bosnian side no doubt committed crimes, which I do not minimise, defend or otherwise act as an apologist for. However, can anyone doubt that the worst atrocities and ethnic cleansing were committed by the Serbian military, in ways that shock us all—perhaps even more as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the last world war? Was not that about ethnic cleansing—an attempt by the Nazis to do away with people whom they thought inferior? Bosnia is on a much smaller scale fortunately, but that is no consolation for the victims.

I cannot understand those who say, "We are concerned but we do not want action taken." They are wrong, and I hope that the House will, by an overwhelming majority, demonstrate its support for the action of the international community, including this country.

Some people argue that we should withdraw completely from Bosnia, but they are very much in the minority. Other matters aside, the humanitarian work undertaken in Bosnia will be an everlasting tribute to the international community, United Nations and this country. So much has been done to provide food and water, without which people would have starved. Such basic humanitarian work is what the international community and the United Nations are also about.

Some Conservative Members—they may not be present today—have never been keen on the United Nations but I do not share that view. In the Falklands conflict and in the Gulf war, I argued that aggression had to be combated. I am a firm supporter of the United Nations and of international law. I am the first to criticise the British Government when they act in defiance of the UN, as they did over Suez. In 1956, I demonstrated against their actions, and I am proud to have done so. I believe that the United Nations is necessary and I want to see it supported all the way.

The line that was put forward, in an intervention in the Prime Minister's speech, by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) was absolutely shameful. If ever there was an illustration of wishing to give in to terrorism, that was it. What could be more shameful than to say to the Serbians, "You have taken our hostages. That is wrong, but we will make a deal with you and do whatever you want."? Surely, hon. Members, like the hon. Lady, time and again in other circumstances would have condemned terrorism, and what has happened over the taking of hostages, the taking of British soldiers, is indeed an act of outright terrorism and should be recognised as such. There can be no dirty deals or appeasement. I am pleased that hon. Members on both Front Benches fully agree on that.

I am not one of those—if there are any, and I doubt whether there are—who want to see us drifting into a wider war. Far from it. All of us, passionately, I am sure, want to see peace restored in the former Yugoslavia, and certainly in Bosnia. We want to see a political solution, as that is necessary. The Muslims are obviously not going to get all that they want. No one has ever suggested that they are likely to do so. There has to be give and take, and at the end of it all, when the conflict comes to an end, once again, as in all previous times, people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds—Muslims, Serbs, Jews and the rest—can live together in peace in Bosnia. Every attempt that can be made to isolate the Bosnian Serbs by getting Belgrade to recognise Bosnia is, of course, to be welcomed. I hope that that will achieve its purpose.

As always in these debates, one takes a particular position, and most of us believe—I believe that it will be demonstrated in the vote tonight—that there is overwhelming support against terrorism and against the kinds of outrages and atrocities that have been committed by the Serbs in Bosnia. There will be a recognition by the overwhelming majority of us that international law should be upheld. I believe that, at 10 o'clock tonight, we will not only have a large majority but that we will be right, politically and morally.

5.31 pm
Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

It seems to me that the House is debating two matters today, the first and most immediate of which is the release of the hostages. The second is the much broader issue of whether our troops should be in Bosnia at all.

With regard to the first of those two matters, quite clearly the whole House agrees that we must take every step, whether it is diplomatic or military, to secure the release of our hostages and to ensure that no more such hostages can be taken. I appreciate absolutely the reluctance of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to spell out to the House in detail what may be done in that regard and I am sure that the House will back whatever steps the Government find necessary to secure that release. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has told the Bosnian Serb leadership in no uncertain terms that their actions have put them beyond the pale in terms of international acceptance. That must be right.

So, in the short term, I am sure that we must concentrate on taking all steps necessary to secure the release of our troops, of the 34 British and the 350 or so overall who are being illegally held by the Bosnian Serbs in this conflict. I hope also that we will take the steps that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have specified to ensure that no further hostages are taken. I believe that that will mean securing our positions in a narrower area, that we will have to withdraw, perhaps, from some of the positions where our people are isolated and that we will have to consolidate the position of all United Nations personnel so that they cannot be taken.

I believe also that the rules of engagement must be broadened. It is not acceptable to require the troops to surrender if no shots are fired at them, which I believe to be the case at the moment. The rule that is preventing them from firing first if necessary to secure their own safety must be reviewed. I believe that the French Government have called for that; indeed, I believe that they have issued specific instructions to their troops to that effect. I hope that the British Government will follow suit and that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, in summing up the debate, will be able to tell us that the rules of engagement are adequate to prevent further hostages being taken.

I now turn briefly to the broader matters, which have already been extensively covered. I welcomed in particular the speech by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who has not only been out to Bosnia twice with the Select Committee but driven a lorryload of humanitarian aid through that country. His knowledge and experience there are invaluable to the Committee and to the whole House. He specified—I was extremely glad to hear it—the way in which UNPROFOR has played such a splendid role in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There has been some unfortunate speculation in the more ignorant parts of the press to the effect that our soldiers out there are wasting their time and that their lives are put at risk for no good purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, were our troops not in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the atrocities that occurred at the beginning of this appalling conflict would undoubtedly be continuing to this day. Because of the presence of United Nations observers, because of the humanitarian aid, because of the presence of the troops on the ground, those atrocities are being largely, although sadly not entirely, curtailed.

Secondly, if the British troops in particular were not there, and if were no military cover in the British sector, I have no doubt whatever that the Muslims and the Croats, who are enjoying a tenuous peace between the two of them, would start fighting within a week. What we saw as a Committee when we went out there was the officers of the British Army, from platoon commanders, sometimes non-commissioned officers as well, right up to the brigadier, having to bash their heads together on a weekly basis, with the Muslim and Croat leaders, to prevent the outbreak of further conflict and the breakdown of the peace between the Muslim and Croat communities. It is bad enough having a war between the Serbian side and the alliance, but, if there were a three-way conflict, I do not believe that it would be possible for very long to maintain the UN presence there or to stop a renewal of the kind of atrocities that we have seen in the past.

Thirdly, the work being done by the Overseas Development Administration, as well as by the humanitarian agencies, is extraordinarily successful. When the Committee was in Zenica, we saw the work that was being done there. Without the presence of the British engineers—I think that there were 12—none of the water supplies would have been running; no water, except for that from the deepest wells, would have been safe for the population to drink, and the electricity supply would have been cut off and remained so. In fact, because of the advice that we are able to give and the aid that we are putting in, that city, and many others, too, are enjoying a comparatively civilised existence with all the necessary basic supplies for the continuation of life.

It would be folly, in my view, for the House to vote in such a way or, indeed, to venture a view that reflected other than support for the Government's line in staying in Bosnia-Herzegovina as long as that is possible without putting British lives at intolerable risk. At the moment, I see no reason to assume that that stage has been reached. I am delighted that we are reinforcing our Army there to ensure that we can defend our own troops, that we can maintain a position in that country and that we will not be forced out by the terrorism in which, currently, the Bosnian Serbs are indulging.

I now deal briefly with some of the other objectives that have been set out by the Government for our existence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. First, on containment, I profoundly disagreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who, sadly, is not in his place. I do not think that he is right in his rather optimistic assessment on the likelihood of the war escalating if we cannot contain it within Bosnia. I believe that it would escalate, that we would have the domino effect, which has occurred in similar conflicts. Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey would, over a period, be drawn inexorably into this conflict and go to a state of war. My right hon. Friend said that Greece and Turkey have enough on their hands. Well, of course, they have, but the trouble is that Greece and Turkey find it very difficult to co-exist at all. The tension between them last November almost brought them to war. Were there to be other such sources of conflict between them, that would make it more, rather than less, likely that such a conflict would occur. The consequences for NATO would be catastrophic. I am sure that one of the dangers that we are likely to face in the next decade or so will be some aggressive act from some country in the middle east. If eastern Europe were not part of NATO—if it were not going to be part of our defensive mechanism—the whole of Europe would be put at risk by that fact.

I hope that we shall be able to stay in Bosnia-Herzegovina as long as is necessary to ensure that the lid is kept on this appalling conflict.

5.39 pm
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

In Northern Ireland, people have taken and continue to take a considerable interest in the affairs of Bosnia. There are many reasons for that. First, we live on an island, part of which was able to break away in 1921 and exercise its right of self-determination—something that we understand. Secondly, we live in a society that has grievously suffered from ethnic, cultural and religious divisions and, therefore, we recognise perhaps more clearly than others the kind of problems that exist in the Balkans. Thirdly, when our own Army went to Bosnia in 1992, the first two regiments to go were the Cheshires, and the Royal Irish Regiment from Northern Ireland.

During my 30 years as a Member of Parliament I have attended more funerals of service men than any other Member present in the House today. Those funerals were always very sad occasions, but people could understand why the events leading to them had taken place. As a Member of Parliament representing a Northern Ireland constituency, I must say that, when the Royal Irish Regiment was in Bosnia, I dreaded more than ever the prospect of soldiers being brought back dead to Belfast and to the constituency of Strangford. That was because I knew that, even after 30 years of attending funerals, I would find it extremely hard to explain why lives had been lost in Bosnia. If that begins to happen in other parts of the United Kingdom, those hon. Members who are so keen to see the situation develop in one way or another may be given pause for thought. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, for example, said that we should take sides. In the United Kingdom, that means more deaths. [HON. MEMBERS: "He didn't say that."] Oh, he did; read Hansard. I noted it down.

First, I want to say how much I sympathise with hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent Welsh constituencies. We are very conscious of the problems facing families in Wales, and all of us urge the Bosnian Serbs to behave properly and in the context of international law and to release the hostages at once. There should be no hostages from Wales or any other part of the world in Bosnia.

I condemn without hesitation the bombing of the Serbs. I know that it was American inspired and I think that it was politically, militarily and diplomatically a disaster: militarily, it did not succeed; politically, it strengthened the ill will that exists in Serbia itself; and, diplomatically, it upset the Russians. Above all, we should understand that—it is perhaps also because I come from Ireland that I know this—one cannot bomb nationalism out of a people, whether they are Serbs, or in Ireland, or Chechens. We condemned the Russians for bombing the people in Chechnya, yet now the Americans urge the bombing of the people in Serbia. It is incredible. There is no consistency in the American approach towards the bombing.

The basic problem is that we were bounced into the recognition of Bosnia. Yesterday, when the Leader of the Opposition—who made an excellent speech today—was in Germany, Chancellor Kohl said that this was one occasion on which Europe should act together. Of course, he is right, but we must recall what happened. Three or four years ago, the European Union Foreign Ministers decided to take no action. Within two weeks, Germany pre-empted everyone and unilaterally decided to recognise Bosnia, thereby bouncing not only the rest of Europe but, a day later, the Americans, into recognising that state. That is the fundamental problem from which the present difficulties have developed, because Bosnia is a failed entity, which had and still has little cohesion as a nation state. We cannot hold Bosnia together by force. That is one of the problems that we must accept. The history of the recent atrocities perpetrated among the various ethnic groups in Bosnia makes a settlement within that state almost impossible.

Two options have been suggested today. One is that we should walk away. There is no way in which we can walk away from the situation in Bosnia today. If we did so, the conflict would develop into a world war. Equally, the option suggested by the Liberal Democrats would lead to a world war, because if we take sides—I am not too sure which side the Liberal Democrats wanted us to take—Turkey would take sides and Greece would take sides. Perhaps even Germany and Russia would take sides. The conflict would develop. So we cannot take sides either.

The third option is the diplomatic way forward. We have to keep our existing troops there—I hope that no more troops will be going in, as we are slowly being sucked further into the conflict—and move as quickly as possible with diplomacy. But what kind of diplomacy should we adopt? That is the question on which I disagree with the Prime Minister. If the recognition of Croatia, Bosnia and the other states of the former Yugoslavia was wrong—if we were bounced into it—why is that now the basis on which we foresee a settlement being made? Recognition was wrong then and it is still wrong today.

The Government should take the initiative to bring the various parties together under the auspices of the contact group. Let us face reality: Bosnia is a failed entity; new international boundaries must be agreed within the former states of Yugoslavia; and those boundaries must be related to the ethnic groups that live in those areas. Only when people support the new boundaries will we finally get a settlement. If the Government think that the way forward is to maintain the present boundaries of Bosnia and to get Serbia to recognise Bosnia, and that that in itself would lead to a settlement, they are badly mistaken. Recognition by Serbia of the present boundaries of Bosnia is not in itself a settlement. A settlement can be achieved only when the people living there identify with its terms. For that reason—because I disagree with the Government's diplomatic approach—if there is a Division tonight, I cannot support the Government.

5.48 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

I could not disagree more with the concluding words of the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor). I commend to him the history of Bosnia by Noel Malcolm—recommended by others this afternoon—because it clearly demonstrates that what he was saying about Bosnia is simply just not so. If the right hon. Gentleman looks back—he will not have to look back far—to the time before this awful war broke out, he will see that Bosnia was, indeed, an entity. That has been said this afternoon and was said three weeks ago when we debated Bosnia. Bosnia was a shining example to people throughout the world of communities living together. The right hon. Gentleman can shake his head, but the fact is that there were more disparate religious buildings—synagogues, Orthodox churches, Roman Catholic churches and mosques—in Bosnia, and particularly in Sarajevo, than in any other comparable area of Europe. People lived together and intermarried. Bosnia was an entity, and to deny that is to fly in the face of the facts. I do not want to digress too far in that direction because I want to refer to what has been said by the Prime Minister and others this afternoon.

A number of hon. Members have referred in passing to the debate on the Falklands. Anyone who was here on that Saturday morning, when the House was absolutely crammed, could not help but note a contrast with the attendance today. That is a pity. The difference may be symptomatic of the life that has gone out of the Chamber over the past few years—much to my regret. I shall merely say that I consider the issue that we are debating now involves far greater potential damage to the world than the Falklands conflict. I entirely supported what the Government did then, but this issue—which, if improperly handled, could lead to a major European war—is of infinitely greater significance, and involves an infinitely greater danger.

I strongly support the Government's clear, firm and decisive response to one of the most despicable acts of international terrorism that we have seen in recent years—for the taking of the hostages is precisely that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an admirable speech as did the Leader of the Opposition. It was good to see the House united through its two principal Members. I shall be very sorry if there is a Division tonight, and I hope that, if there is, an insignificant number will go into the No Lobby. A Division of any strength would send out all the wrong signals; at a time when members of the armed forces are in grave danger, they deserve the united backing of the House of Commons.

The policy pursued by the international community in Bosnia over the past three years has been bedevilled by lack of the clarity, firmness and decisiveness that we have seen in the past few days. That has been caused by an unwillingness to acknowledge the consequences of recognising Bosnia as an independent state, and by a compulsion to behave as a neutral between victim and aggressor—between those who would protect their nationhood and those who would destroy it.

We must recognise that Bosnia is a state. Whatever the right hon. Member for Strangford and others may think, it has a seat at the United Nations; its Foreign Minister, who was so tragically killed the other day—a brilliant man whom some of us had the honour of knowing—was here just three short weeks ago, representing his country at the VE day celebrations. I have been privileged to take part in a number of discussions between my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Hans Silajdzic when he was Bosnia's Foreign Minister—he is now its Prime Minister—and there was never any doubt that my right hon. Friend received him not only with the utmost courtesy, as one would expect, but as a fellow Foreign Minister.

Bosnia is a state, and we must recognise that what has gone on over the past three years is an attempt to destroy that state. Under the charter of the United Nations, any state that is threatened with destruction has the right to defend itself or to be defended.

I do not want to digress at length on the reasons for or against the arms embargo, save to say that an acute moral dilemma is involved in not giving a state the means to defend itself while also not coming to its defence. Certain facts stand out in the unhappy history of the past three years. One is that the prime responsibility for the war rests with the Serbs: initially, those in Belgrade, who were bent on creating a greater Serbia—that is why some of us get cross when this is described as an ordinary civil war—and then, increasingly, those Serbs in Bosnia whose aim has been to smash and shatter a tolerant, civilised society.

I say "those Serbs in Bosnia" deliberately. One of the myths that has bedevilled this whole saga—I referred to it in a speech three weeks ago—is the myth that all Serbs in Bosnia support Radovan Karadzic. They emphatically do not. Only this morning I received a copy of the declaration of the Serb Council, which gives unequivocal support to the concept of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, repudiates the use of force by Karadzic and his henchmen and castigates, in the most damning language, the atrocities perpetrated in Bosnia. I have no means of knowing, any more than any other hon. Member, precisely what support each group of Serbs has; but the statement that the Council has the support of 200,000 Serbs currently in Bosnia has never been convincingly challenged. Indeed, it is unlikely that Mr. Karadzic and his henchmen represent more than a maximum of 50 per cent. of the Serbs in Bosnia.

In pursuing their aims, the Karadzic Serbs, as I shall call them—those who follow him and General Mladic—have perpetrated some of the most appalling atrocities suffered in Europe during this century: atrocities that compare in horror with some of the worst atrocities of the last war. I do not for a moment pretend that no atrocities have been committed by the Bosnian Government forces—in a war, terrible things happen on each side—but what is not in doubt is that the vast majority of the horror and mayhem has been caused by Karadzic's Serbs, those same people who now seek to hold the international community to ransom.

If we are to talk of taking sides, let me ask who has taken sides. It is Karadzic and his men who have proclaimed the United Nations force to be an enemy. I shall not describe—as have many hon. Members on both sides of the House—UNPROFOR's splendid achievements in appallingly difficult circumstances; but the branding of those who have brought help and succour to the young, the old and the sick as "the enemy" shows the mentality of Karadzic and his men.

I will not forget, and I am sure that no other hon. Member who saw them will forget, those pictures of French and other soldiers chained to targets and the parading of the so-called prisoners of war before the television cameras. In the light of those latest atrocities, it is essential for the response of the international community to be cool, calm and utterly determined. Karadzic must be in no doubt that, unless he unconditionally releases the hostages and ceases to slaughter innocent civilians—as he did in Tuzla last week—he cannot hope for a place at any conference table. That message must be spelt out clearly by the contact group, at Head of Government level.

President Milosevic—who, properly, has been mentioned several times this afternoon—should be in no doubt that, unless he reinforces that message by recognising Bosnia-Herzegovina, there can be no relaxation of sanctions against Serbia. The honouring of those preconditions will provide an opportunity for a proper peace conference, and an opportunity for Serbia to begin to rebuild itself—for no one should doubt that, although the sufferings of those living in Serbia pale into insignificance beside the sufferings of those living in Bosnia, the people of Serbia have suffered greatly over the past three years.

Unless and until Karadzic complies, the United Nations must strengthen and regroup its forces and it must redefine its mandate—although it is perhaps appropriate to remember that it is Karadzic who has prevented it from fulfilling its existing mandate. In a very well-informed speech, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) referred to the way in which individual Serb soldiers were able to prevent the distribution of vital medical supplies from the airport in Sarajevo. Serb soldiers have prevented the airport from functioning on many occasions, they have turned back convoys and dealt out all sorts of humiliations to the United Nations. It is crucial that British, French and other soldiers who are serving with such distinction in the face of great difficulty should never again be denied the chance or the means of taking proper anticipatory or retaliatory action if they or any civilian targets are at risk.

For their part, the Bosnian Government must be asked to place all their heavy weaponry under United Nations control. They have shown their willingness to do so in the past, however they can comply only if they are secure in the knowledge that civilian targets will be safe from attack and that we will never again see the sorts of scenes that disfigured our television screens on the weekend when 70 young people, including a child of three, were blown to smithereens during the shelling of Tuzla. They wanted nothing more than to enjoy a quiet coffee and a stroll on a spring evening.

Unity and cohesion on the part of the international community, and particularly among the nations of the contact group, are crucial. I believe that the Prime Minister and the Government have taken a commendable lead this week. The Prime Minister told us this afternoon that he has had individual contact with the President of Russia, the President of the United States, the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany. That is absolutely splendid and as it should be. However, I hope that he will also consider a request that I have made previously and that I do not apologise for making again today. I hope that the Prime Minister will consider calling for a meeting of the contact group at Head of Government level in order to demonstrate our unity and resolve to the whole international community. It would be entirely appropriate to invite President Milosevic to such a meeting at the right time.

If we can unite in support of the new clarity, firmness and resolve that have been demonstrated in the past few days, I think that the horrors of the past three years and the suffering of the people of Bosnia and of Serbia and Croatia may come to an end. If the will weakens, if the resolve crumples and if the unity dissolves, that will be a prelude to even greater horrors—not the least of which would be the humiliation and demonstration of the incompetence of the international community. We cannot afford to let that happen. I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government on what they have done and I urge them to keep up their excellent work.

6.3 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I am afraid that many of the speeches that we have heard in the past three and a half hours have been laced with wishful thinking. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I shall vote against the Government—and indeed against my own Front Bench—at the end of the debate. I should like to put a number of questions to the Government.

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

On the Adjournment.

Mr. Dalyell


The Prime Minister gave way most courteously during his opening remarks, but I fear that he did not listen carefully to the question that was put to him. That question was: did the Russians agree, or were they consulted, about the ultimatum, let alone the actual use of air strikes? As the former Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, unless we maintain the closest relations with the Russians, we have no hope of influencing the Serbs.

The Secretary of State may like to answer that question now or in winding up. Were the Russians consulted? I think that the House should be told whether they were consulted and whether they agreed to the air strikes.

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

I think that the hon. Member heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answer that question quite unambiguously. According to the rules under which the United Nations command operates, the Russian, French, British and American Governments are not consulted. The United Nations commanders in the field make a recommendation as they see fit in favour of an air strike. If Mr. Akashi, the Secretary-General's representative, agrees with it, the request is put to the Commander-in-Chief South—who is a NATO commander—who then initiates the use of air power. That is the way that the procedure has always worked, and that is the way it worked on this occasion.

Mr. Dalyell

The Secretary of State is doubtless correct about the procedure; I would not argue with him about the legal small print. However, it is mad beyond measure not at least to seek the agreement of the Russians on a matter about which we know they have the strongest views, even though those views may be unpalatable. Whatever the legal aspects may be, the political judgment exercised on that occasion was absolutely deplorable. Therefore, I am very unhappy with both the Secretary of State's courteous answer and the Prime Minister's response this afternoon.

I turn to a subject that I know is very unpleasant. The Prime Minister has talked both in the House and outside about Serbia becoming a pariah because it has taken hostages. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition described its behaviour as "barbarous", and an act of terrorism. That is correct, yet perhaps there is another side to the story.

We should not be personal in the debate, but I belong to a generation—I am rather older than most hon. Members—who did national service. During my national service, I served in a tank crew with the Royal Scots Greys, as they then were, or the Dragoon Guards as they are now known, and whose tie I proudly wear. The blunt fact is that my contemporaries and I faced the possibility of being "brewed up" in a tank; that was the situation at the time of the Yalu river crisis.

The thought that one may be destroyed in the most dramatic circumstances really concentrates one's mind. I am not claiming any kind of bravery; I am simply making the point that, if one is faced with the threat of missile attack, one does desperate things in the name of self-preservation.

If the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) had been in the Chamber, I would have reminded him that he and I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) have visited Baghdad in different circumstances, and we have witnessed the results of modern missile warfare. It is absolutely traumatic. People who are faced with that kind of attack—like it or not, that was the threat—will act in what we might regard as a very uncivilised way. They will take hostages.

Bluntly, I have to tell the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that all their lecturing and haranguing of the Serbs will not make much difference to the Serbs actually on the spot, who are threatened with missile attack. Is it the loss of face? Why do we not simply say that there will be no more such attacks, which were entirely American-initiated?

I share the resentment expressed by some right hon. and hon. Members, mostly Conservative Members sitting below the Gangway, that Americans such as Madeleine Albright applied so much pressure for missile attacks from the air when we have troops on the ground and the Americans do not. I repeat the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, which has not been answered. Can we continue the threat of aerial attack and at the same time have troops carrying out what is supposed to be a humanitarian mission? We cannot have both. It has to be one or the other. It is make-believe and unreal to think that it can conceivably be both.

In his reply to the debate, the Secretary of State for Defence will have to provide some very good reasons for the threat of aerial attack which, as has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), has created considerable doubt. Will we do it again, and if not, had we not better say so?

I am conscious that there is an ethnic problem. Political friends of many years have asked me, "How can you do anything that seems to endorse ethnic cleansing?" But is it ethnic cleansing? Are we quite sure about that, because the history of those particular Muslims is not ethnic? I return for a moment to Baghdad, where the Sunnis and Shi-ites, when asking about Bosnia, say, "These particular Muslims are not quite our kind of Muslims." They are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Serbs who tried to ingratiate themselves with the Ottoman Turks by embracing the religion of the Ottoman Turks, often in order to gain position in the Turkish empire and get some kudos from Constantinople, or Istanbul.

I am against massacres, but we should not think that it is straightforward ethnic cleansing. They are interreacting tribal affairs and ancient rivalries. We have to ask ourselves whether the British Army can sort them out. I have the gravest doubts about that.

We are all under a curfew, so I shall be brief. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) led an all-party group to Greece and Macedonia. I hasten to say that we paid for ourselves, so it was not a freebie. In Greek Macedonia—I cannot speak for Yugoslav Macedonia—the general feeling was that there should be no military intervention, so there are differing views in that part of the world. I do not say that there is not a problem of extension to Macedonia and Kosovo, but a large section of the population involved takes a different view.

Those of us who have been in danger and been all right because it did not happen know that the troops are entitled to some cover. What cover is being given to those who are being sent in? As I understand it, there should be heavy artillery cover if not tank cover, but it is not tank country.

The Secretary of State for Defence owes it to the House to be specific about what cover is being provided. If it is essential to have massive cover if it were a matter of withdrawing, why cannot some agreement be reached with people who ostensibly want us to go? I do not see it as an overriding problem.

What is an overriding problem, however, is that it is part of history that Tito's deterrent to Stalin was not atomic bombs, let alone hydrogen bombs; it was the most powerfully trained guerrilla army ever. The hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) will remember that our colleague Julian Amery, who knew a good deal of this, would go into detail about the strength, determination and training of Yugoslavian soldiers. We are coping with their sons if not themselves, trained in the tradition of guerrilla warfare.

It is a formidable deterrent. I understand that it was such a deterrent that Marshals Zhukov and Timoshenko told Stalin that on no account should the Red Army take on those people, although in the eyes of Moscow they were guilty of a deviant variety of communism.

I conclude that, unless we are prepared to impose a solution—and it will involve more than the 37 German Panzer divisions that the Yugoslavs tied down during the war—we are in no position for posturing. Whether or not we lose face, we have to talk seriously. If our priority is to rescue the hostages—and that should be one of our top priorities—for heaven's sake let us get around a table, embarrassing as it may be, and talk, talk, talk. We should start by making it clear that never again will there be such a strike as took place so catastrophically and has been the genesis of the debate.

6.17 pm
Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

It is a demonstration of the extent to which this debate has transcended normal party political divisions that I find myself in so much agreement with much of the speeches of the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).

I was one of those who from the beginning argued against sending troops into Bosnia. Nothing that has happened in recent days has in any way surprised me, because it is exactly what would obviously happen once we had sent in troops. The trouble with politics, as with life generally, is that, however far-sighted one may have been in past years about possible future dangers, one has always to live with the circumstances as they are and not as they might have been had wiser counsels been followed. That is the position we are in now.

The right hon. Member for Strangford was the only one so far in the debate to make so powerfully one of the most important points of all. What will the attitude of the British people who sent us here be when, as may only too possibly happen in future weeks and months, considerable numbers of British troops are sent home in body bags for burial?

The right hon. Member for Strangford told us about his tragic first-hand memories of his Northern Ireland constituency and the service funerals that he had attended. I agree with his judgment that the British people were prepared to accept that we had to fight for the Falkland islands. I know that my constituents are prepared to fight for the union of Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain and, as a Unionist, I am passionately committed to that. However, I have represented my constituents for over 30 years and I have lived in my constituency for all that time, and I doubt whether they will be prepared to see their sons die to protect the people of Bosnia.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) was right to paint the appalling picture of what life is like in Bosnia. As individuals, we would all like to be able to stop those appalling atrocities. However, when a boy in their street is killed trying to stop these savages, who have been killing each other in this way for centuries, I believe that British public opinion will quickly turn against the operation.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Will it come as any surprise to my hon. Friend to learn that not a single one of my constituents has written to me, telephoned me, come to my surgery or tracked me down in the street to say that they support sending troops to Bosnia, either at the beginning or now—or, I suspect, like my hon. Friend, in the future? Does that surprise my hon. Friend, or does it reinforce his argument?

Sir Peter Tapsell

It does not surprise me at all. I have not yet met a constituent of mine in Lincolnshire who is in favour of sending more troops to Bosnia. In my view, the overwhelming majority want the whole lot of them brought out now. That is what they tell me.

Sir Patrick Cormack

How does my hon. Friend think his constituents or anybody else's constituents would feel if, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned in his admirable speech, we were landed with a major European war? How would they feel if NATO partners such as Greece and Turkey were fighting each other and we faced the destabilisation of our entire continent and really were drawn into a war? Surely they would think that we had failed to give a lead.

Sir Peter Tapsell

Our right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) has more experience in these matters than anybody else in the House. He said that talk of a great increase in the number of wars in the vicinity was greatly exaggerated. Nobody can be certain about the future.

The Leader of the Opposition made an admirable speech, and he mentioned a country that I have known for many years—Turkey. My view—I share the view of my former leader, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup—is that it is most improbable that, at this stage in its history, Turkey would allow itself to be drawn into a Balkan war. It would know for certain that all hope of joining the European Union for the foreseeable future would disappear at once. Knowing some Turkish Ministers as I have, I simply do not believe that they would contemplate that.

We are talking about imponderables, and of course it is a matter of judgment. If my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South was right and our withdrawal from Bosnia led to the 1914 scenario starting over again, we would be blamed. But we are sent here to exercise our judgment.

As the hon. Member for Linlithgow mentioned, in his speech and in his question to the Prime Minister, if we want to avoid the 1914 scenario, our top priority should be to work closely with Russia. It seems astonishing that we treat the Russians so casually in all this. If there is one overseas subject on which the Russians feel passionately, it is the protection of Serbia.

The reply that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence gave a moment ago to the hon. Member for Linlithgow was admirably legalistic, but do Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Zhirinovsky and people like that read the small print, or do they hear that Americans, against the advice of most of us, have been bombing their Serbian friends without them being told in advance? I do not think that there will be much support for that in Russia.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow and the right hon. Member for Strangford were right to draw attention to the fact that it is the older Members of the House, who have served in the armed forces, who are most concerned about all this. There is a tendency for people who have never been in the armed services to have a slightly glamorous version of what military life is like.

If one has been in the armed services, one knows that there is nothing glamorous about much of it, and that getting hurt or the prospect of getting hurt concentrates the mind considerably. It is people such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, who served in the war, who properly have these great anxieties.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) said that there was no point in looking back over how we reached this point. With great respect to him—and I agree with much of what he said—there is some point in looking back. It is only by doing so that we can learn how we have got to where we are now, and perhaps learn some lessons about where we want to go in the future, and where we do not want to finish.

I wish to give my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my other hon. Friends on the Front Bench three recollections. On 29 June 1992, I said: we can hope to restore order in that part of the world"— that is, Bosnia— only with a massive military intervention, which would inevitably lead to large-scale casualties."—[Official Report, 29 June 1992; Vol. 210, c. 591.] In reply, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the main purpose of the very limited military intervention planned would be to escort Red Cross convoys to Sarajevo.

On 14 January 1993, in a question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I told him that, when I first visited the Vietnam war zone, there were 600 American advisers in civilian clothes, but that, on my last visit to that area, there were 500,000 American troops. My right hon. and learned Friend told me that he could reassure me that only the Cheshire Regiment was in Bosnia, and that today's announcement will mean that about 89 additional personnel will go into Bosnia. Those are the only people who will enter the former Yugoslavia."—[Official Report, 14 January 1993; Vol. 216, c. 1061.] On 10 March 1994, when it was announced that we were sending a second battalion to Bosnia, I told my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that I viewed with a sickening sense of the inevitable the slowly unfolding fact that, as we all predicted, we are moving on from protecting the convoys to maintaining the peace. In those circumstances, why are we sending only one battalion, when five divisions will eventually prove insufficient? My right hon. and learned Friend said: about 30 members of the United Nations are now making some contribution of troops in former Yugoslavia."—[Official Report, 10 March 1994; Vol. 239, c. 405.] He said that, consequently, we had to increase our contribution substantially.

As has been pointed out, Britain and France have made by far the most significant contribution of ground troops in the most dangerous areas, and we are now moving towards a total commitment of British troops approaching 12,000 in number. So much for the Secretary of State's reassurance about only 89 extra men, as recently as January 1993.

That is a picture of the classic, deadly escalation that was certain to happen from the moment that we sent our first troops—as I said at the time, backed by several hon. Members with military service. Nor will it stop there. Just as we are now sending in another 6,000 troops to protect the 6,000 already there, we will soon be told that we must send another 6,000 to protect that 6,000—ad Vietnam.

The first Candian United Nations commander in Bosnia, General Macdonald—

Mr. Home Robertson

General Mackenzie—get something right.

Sir Peter Tapsell

I am only half Scot.

That first UN commander, on giving up his command, said that it would take 250,000 troops to maintain anything approaching peace in the area, and that, as soon as those troops were withdrawn, the situation would quickly become as bad as it was before. That is the reality. In my experience, most people outside this House clearly understand that, so let us bring some hard-headed realism into the practical conduct of our Balkan policy.

No important British national self-interest is involved. That is the basic point. The interest is that of common humanity, which is an immensely important point, as I accepted when I intervened in the speech of the Leader of the Opposition. However, as I said then, if humanity is to be the determining factor in British foreign policy, why are not we sending troops to Angola, Rwanda, Cambodia, Kurdistan, Tibet and Chechnya, to mention just a few? What is so very different about Bosnia?

Sir Patrick Cormack

It is in Europe.

Sir Peter Tapsell

Yes, Bosnia is at the heart of Europe, but I suspect that many people throughout the world will say that what is so very different about Bosnia is that its people are white—[Interruption.] That is what they will say. There is another reason, apart from being in Europe, that makes Bosnia so different—it is that, admirable and brave a woman though she is, it is less than satisfactory to have our foreign policy directed by Miss Kate Adie—[Interruption.] It is a relevant point.

When the television cameras suddenly moved to Rwanda, people stopped writing to me about Bosnia and wrote about Rwanda instead. Public opinion is important, but we must be careful not to allow vital British foreign policy to be dominated by where the television cameras happen to be.

Some of my hon. Friends seem to think that my remarks are somewhat frivolous and inappropriate on such a serious occasion,, but I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the television pictures of one lorry bomb exploding in the marine barracks in Beirut brought about an immediate and complete change in American policy towards the Lebanon. It took television pictures of just one airman being lynched by an Arab mob to change American policy in Somalia. Are we so sure that our Ministers will be made of sterner stuff when our television cameras are concentrating on dead British soldiers?

It is no wonder that the American President—far more interested in New Hampshire than in old Sarajevo—advocates a Balkan policy of bombing Serbia back into the stone age from a very safe height. He will not put any American boys on the ground, and who can blame him for that? Only yesterday, the American Secretary of State said that there was no issue of sufficient strategic importance in Bosnia to justify the commitment of American ground forces. He was right—and what is true for America is true for both Britain and France.

The war cannot be won; peace cannot be imposed; it is a tragedy deeply embedded in history that should be allowed to continue to unfold. Of course the Serbs have committed and are committing appalling atrocities, but so have the Muslims and the Croats in the past. Indeed, it is well known that the Croats and the Muslims, organised by the Nazis, murdered 500,000 Serbs during the war years, and Serbian memories of that are still vivid.

In fact, the west has consistently underestimated the Serbs. They are one of the fiercest, bravest and most patriotic races on earth, and always have been. Their leaders enjoy the virtually unanimous support of their people, as the recent elections have shown. Greater Serbia is a dream that will never die, however many Serbs may die in its pursuit. Anyone who has read any Balkan history—not just Mr. Noel Malcolm's rather slim volume—will tell us that.

California and Sakhalin are on terrestrial fault lines. In Bosnia, we are dealing with one of the great political fault lines on our planet—ethnic, cultural, religious and historic; the medieval frontier between west and east. If the outside world had not interfered, as we declined to interfere in the civil wars in Nigeria and Angola, I believe that the war in Bosnia would long have been over. We face a disaster in Bosnia that was not only predictable, not only predicted, but certain.

At the apogee of the British empire, we sent General Gordon to Khartoum to restore order. Then we sent an army, under Lord Wolseley, to rescue him. That failed. Then we sent another Army, under Lord Kitchener, to avenge him. It dug up the remains of the dead Mahdi and hung his skeleton in chains. Today, the Sudan is as proud, as savage and as Islamic a country as any in the world. Let us withdraw General Smith and his troops, now.

6.37 pm
Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I am sure that the hon. Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell) does not speak for the House when he refers to the role of television journalists and photographers in the war zone in Bosnia. Indeed, I am sure that the House would want to pay tribute to the many journalists who have risked their lives to show people in this country what is happening in Bosnia.

I welcome the debate and the speeches by the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). Hon. Members today, representing our constituencies and speaking as the voice of the nation, must send a clear message throughout the world that we will not allow a bunch of bully-boy thugs to defy the United Nations, to defeat democracy and to use unarmed hostages.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) for his speech. Since the beginning of the war three years ago, there has been a lack of firmness, clarity and resolution. I recall our debate in November 1992, when I and a number of other hon. Members who are present today spoke. So many of the events prophesied in that debate have come true. If more resolution had been shown and some of the aggression faced up to, we would not be in this position today.

We have to be very clear about the terms we use when we talk about this serious issue. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a sovereign state recognised by the international community. It is not a Muslim state. It is a state where 30 per cent. of the citizens marry people from different religious groups. That is good evidence of the tolerance that has sustained Bosnia's character and identity.

For centuries, the populations have lived and been educated together. The synagogues, mosques and Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) mentioned, have existed side by side. Anyone who attended the winter Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984 saw that tolerance.

When I and my hon. Friends the Members for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) and for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) visited the besieged Sarajevo in November 1993, we saw for ourselves the dedication of the Bosnian Government and their people to the idea of a pluralist, multi-ethnic state. We saw a Government who were made up of members of Bosnia's various ethnic groups. We must not continue to talk about a Muslim Government and a Muslim state.

The three years of war have not lessened their commitment to a historic Bosnia existing within its pre-war frontiers, pluralist in culture and with equal rights for all its citizens. The continued existence of thousands of Serbs in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla and elsewhere proves that that remains a viable goal and gives the lie to all those who assert that the war has made it impossible for the communities to live together.

The fact that, under the huge pressure of aggression, terror, ethnic cleansing and genocide, those communities have continued to do so proves not only that it remains possible but that it is the only possibility that most Bosnians can envisage. The Bosnia that they are defending could not be Bosnia if it was not a mix of the Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim traditions.

We must also be clear that this is not a civil war. We should not use the term "warring factions". How can a legitimate, internationally recognised Government be a warring faction? It beggars belief that anyone can attempt to classify in the same category Haris Silajdzic, the Prime Minister of Bosnia, and Karadzic, the leader of a minority of Serbs. Karadzic is a thug, liar and terrorist and the United Nations must not even consider appeasing him. If it does, as has been said, not only will he come back for more but UN soldiers anywhere in the world will be open to being taken hostage.

Karadzic does not speak for all the Serbs in Bosnia. He speaks for only a small number of rebel Serbs. Karadzic is the leader of a criminal minority of the Bosnian Serbs. He does not want peace because he is too deeply involved in crime. He can continue to lead only while there is war. He has no future outside his present world of terror and the hostage taking has stripped any last vestiges of respectability that he had.

The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina today is a monument to the international community, which has allowed aggression to pay and prevented the victim from defending itself from that aggression.

I pay tribute, as have other hon. Members, to the role that UNPROFOR and our British troops have played. With their hands tied behind their back, they have still managed to save thousands of lives. The international community should condemn and punish the Serbian aggressors who have carried out torture, murder and ethnic cleansing.

I am sad that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) talked as if there were some shades of difference in ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing and we should not get into the details of whether one sort is better than others. In spite of all that, the international community has chosen to treat what is happening in Bosnia as a civil war in which the warring parties are equally guilty.

The legitimate Government of Bosnia, recognised as a sovereign state by the international community, have been deprived by the arms embargo of the access to the weapons that they need to defend their people and territory. The UN Security Council resolutions have failed to be implemented and therefore the Serbs do not believe that the world powers have the will to confront them. What message does that send out to other potential aggressors who want to flout international law in pursuit of nationalist ambitions?

Attacks on safe havens by Serb forces should be repelled—as has happened—by NATO military action. We have to make it clear to Serbia that until it recognises unconditionally the independence of Bosnia and Croatia, there will be no lifting of the sanctions against it and that, indeed, sanctions will be tightened.

The Prime Minister and other hon. Members have talked about us not taking sides. How can we be even-handed in the face of aggression? I do not apologise for taking sides. I know what side I am on: I am on the side of the legitimate Bosnian Government. How can we allow the international order to be seen off by a gang of terrorists? What is the point of safe havens if they are not safe?

We have talked a lot about the UN mandate and how it can be changed. As it stands, it allows General Rupert Smith to use whatever force is necessary to deliver humanitarian aid, to enforce the no-fly zone and to deter attacks on safe areas. That sounds like a pretty good mandate to me. The problem is that he has not been able to carry it out.

What kind of message does it give to the world and to those who want to support legitimate Governments when, as my hon. Friend the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) mentioned in his excellent speech, we allow rebel Serbs to close down the airport of Sarajevo—a capital city just two hours flight from here—so that UN officials and aid cannot get there? The city is still besieged as it has been from the start. There has merely been a little bit less shelling and fewer people have been killed.

It is appalling that the only way in which the legitimate Government, recognised by the international community, can get out of their capital city is to go through the tunnel under the airport and up by Mount Igman. That is disgraceful.

The prevention of a full-scale Balkan war is very much a strategic interest for Britain. That is why our troops must stay and why we must give them the power to act. If not, then we have to say quite clearly that we will lift the arms embargo. If the international community is not prepared to act to uphold international law, we must give the people of Bosnia the right to defend themselves.

I am very sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is forcing a vote tonight. It was extremely useful that both Front Benches supported each other.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

So that people outside the House do not misunderstand what we are doing, would my hon. Friend make it clear that there will be no Division tonight on any resolution or motion? It is simply that some hon. Members intend to divide the House against the debate being terminated at 10 o'clock.

Miss Hoey

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention but I do not think that that is the reason that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield gave. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is doing that. If he thinks that that will help in any way to get the release of hostages in Pale, he is wrong.

When we visited Pale, my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, North-West and for Western Isles met Karadzic. He lied to us absolutely and straight up and down. He simply lied about the shelling; he lied about everything. He will be sitting in Pale tonight and will be delighted to see the House divide. It does not matter about the technicalities. It will send a wrong message from the House. I do not think that the British public want us to send that message.

I support the speeches of the Prime Minister and of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I hope that we will strengthen our resolve to ensure that international law is kept and that we will give what support we can to the people of Bosnia in their endeavours to have a multi-cultural, pluralist and safe society to live in.

6.48 pm
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) because it was a strong defence of what she described as the integrity of Bosnia. In the end, however, she was asking us to take sides. If we were to do so, we should have to ask the Government to do so on the ground in the former Yugoslavia, which would mean interfering with the warring factions and ceasing to fulfil our mandate. That was the point made by many Conservative and Opposition Members and by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

There is no commitment by the Government to get involved in the enforcement of peace. There is no such commitment among the majority of hon. Members and certainly not among the people outside who do not think that this country should interfere in what they see as an ethnic dispute or civil war, whatever one chooses to call it. They know that, for month after month, some of the wisest people whom we have been able to summon to try to arbitrate or get some agreement have failed in that pursuit. Why have they failed? It is not through a lack of diligence, common purpose or good will towards the warring factions but because the people there do not seem to want agreement.

It is not only a question of the Serbs not wanting agreement, bad though their reputation is. We can point to members of other communities in the former Yugoslavia who have committed the most despicable acts and acted with an obtuseness that has been one of the most appalling demonstrations by a so-called civilised nation that we have experienced since the end of the previous war. On the basis of what we have heard from the two Front Benches, on no account should we be lured into taking sides because the consequence of doing so would be entering the war.

I had not intended to say this, but an article was brought to my attention. It is written by someone living in Belgrade, I assume, and was published in a magazine there called The Age of Man, although its title is given in French as L'Age D'Homme. It is entitled Misconceptions about Bosnia-Herzegovina. I do not know whether it is true but it states: The major preoccupation of the Contact group was the territorial partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina … The plan of the Contact group was refused by Serbs and that is an irrefutable fact", or so it is claimed. The article goes on the make a point that was also made—strongly—by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), who should know about ethnic disputes. Essentially, the article states: It is impossible to create unity without the unanimous will of the people. I think that we all recognise that. It goes on to say that, if one third of the Bosnian population in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict—the Serbs—are not interested in living with the other two thirds, how can we make them? We cannot tell them that they have to; we can suggest that they do so and object to the tactics that they use but if we try to tell a Serb, with his passions and memories, that he has to live with the Croats and Muslims—and the Croats and Muslims do not want to live with him—we shall have a dangerous and explosive cocktail.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that 150,000 Serbs live alongside Muslims in Bosnian Government-controlled territory and that the majority of Serbs in Karadzic-controlled territory have fled, usually to Serbia? Karadzic represents only a minority of the Serb population, most of whom do not want violence and aggression.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

The hon. Gentleman may be right, but it seems to many hon. Members that among the Croats, Muslims and Serbs—I am talking about Bosnian Serbs—there seems to be a lack of the unity and good will that we have every right to expect after three years of bloody war, which we have tried to stop and during which we have given humanitarian relief and risked the lives of our soldiers and those from other countries, some of which are a damn sight poorer than the country that they are helping. It seems that they are refusing to bury their differences, which have been shored up by a history of discontent and exacerbated by the breakdown of the former Yugoslavian state.

It cannot be disputed that in the federation of Yugoslavia two states were based on ethnic grounds—Croatia and Serbia. Bosnia-Herzegovina is based on not one but three ethnic grounds, and Lord knows we have had enough trouble with the others. It may be that diplomacy is the way out of the problem—it is certainly the only way that I can see because I cannot envisage our sending troops to enforce a peace. Nor can I envisage the Americans doing so, and certainly not the Germans or French. It seems, therefore, that we have to go back to the drawing board to find out how to stop Bosnia-Herzegovina becoming the most important and intractable problem of all. It may have something to do with the fact that the passion of the Serbs needs to be resolved in the way suggested by the right hon. Member for Strangford—by a recognition that ethnicity is a vital component in the wretched business of trying to achieve a diplomatic solution.

I refer now to a reaction that some colleagues and some Opposition Members displayed recently. When there is a new drama in international affairs, there is a tendency to make a panic or a sensational response. At the spring meeting of the North Atlantic Assembly in Budapest, the media and some other bodies acted true to form. The options were a panic withdrawal or the sending of more troops and if, ultimately, things do not work out, we should smash the Serbs and tell them what to do.

That, however, was not the reaction of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) or of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who has left his place, when I got together with them as the leader of the United Kingdom NAA delegation to see whether we could get some expression of opinion from the many delegates from various Parliaments of western, central and eastern Europe, from the Russian Parliament and from the United States Congress about the taking of hostages. With their help, we were able to propose an initiative that became the resolution supported not only by the NAA's standing committee but the plenary session.

The draft resolution states: The Assembly, Condemns without reservation the unprincipled and barbaric use of unarmed military observers of the United Nations as human shields by Bosnian Serb Forces … Demands the immediate and unconditional release of the unarmed military observers of the United Nations … Calls for an immediate cessation of aggression, in particular towards the civilian population in Bosnia; Expresses its support for the continuing effort of forces operating under relevant United Nations resolutions to maintain peace and bring humanitarian assistance in certain regions in former Yugoslavia … Strongly endorses the efforts of the Contact Group to achieve a negotiated settlement … Requests that the United Nations Security Council considers amending the mandate of UNPROFOR so that it is able to respond to any aggression to which it is subjected. The resolution was carried almost unanimously. Two did not support it—a German Green and a German Communist. We wondered how the Russians would respond, but they supported it, too. They did not seem especially concerned about whether they had been consulted on whether there should have been an order for an air strike. However, I would not want to assume too much from the Russians.

Nevertheless, it would be terrible to send the message that people consider it a waste of time for us to try to seek a diplomatic solution or believe that it is wrong for our troops to be out there with those of other nations trying to provide humanitarian assistance. It would be to send a terrible message if that view were expressed in tonight's vote and interpreted as meaning that we were backtracking on the concept shared by many of us, enshrined in the assembly's resolution and accepted by many countries from central and eastern Europe, many of which had received refugees and sent their men and women to help.

Mr. Dalyell

Can the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues envisage circumstances in years to come when it would ever be acceptable for us to withdraw on the basis of the criteria that he has outlined?

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Yes, I think that one has to face up to that reality. That is why I am not one of those who believes that we should go on and on and in the end, as an act of despair, decide to bomb them into subjection. I have heard that phrase used in the United States. It is a ludicrous concept and it would be as counterproductive as some of the actions of the Serbs.

As I see Government policy, it is an each-way bet. The Government have to respond in the way in which they do and I think that that is right. As hon. Members have said, we cannot give way to blackmail; that would be wrong. Withdrawal has its own risks and costs quite apart from its financial costs. It cannot be achieved overnight. If we wanted to withdraw, not only would the humanitarian aid stop, as we know, but we would have the delicate task of trying to withdraw our armed forces which would—perhaps—be resisted by the very people who we have tried to help. People would block the path of troops supplying the humanitarian aid and beg them not to leave. I would like to see the television cameras cover that scene, as British troops withdraw and people stop them to ask for help in administering medical supplies. That picture would tell a story that would shame all of us.

Withdrawal is not an easy moral option; it is very difficult. Nevertheless, patience can run out. As I see it, the Government are sending troops to help make it more possible for the aid to go through, to protect those deployed for peacekeeping and to ensure that they are not isolated. That is an honourable objective. It sends a signal to people who wish us to withdraw that we shall not be bullied out. That seems to be the first objective.

As time goes by—we know that NATO has already made plans for withdrawal—and if further provocative action is taken by whichever side is stupid enough, we would expect the forces to be organised and to be reinforced by other NATO allies to enable their swift and competent exit. Although NATO has thoroughly planned that scenario, the decision has yet to be made. I hope, therefore, that we can be patient and do not rush or be panicked into any immediate withdrawal, or think that the alternative, as I said, is to go to war.

I know that there are still many hon. Members who want to speak, so I shall not go into any further detail about the speeches made from the two Front Benches. Speeches of hon. Members of all parties—I single out that of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—have displayed a quality of statesmanship which we ought to respect. The action is both prudent and honourable.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I must remind the House that Madam Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 pm and 9 pm.

7.2 pm

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Lucky me! Having listened to some of the rubbish that I have had to listen to this afternoon, it is now two minutes past 7. In my 30 years in the House, I have seen some strange liaisons—both in the Chamber and, not surprisingly, outside the Chamber—but tonight's is a collector's piece. We have my much regarded hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) appearing to try to sustain two unacceptable arguments: one, that ethnic cleansing, if it is the descendants of converts, is a little more acceptable, and, secondly, that after four years of discussions with the Serbs, we should sit down with them again because they will suddenly be reasonable. My hon. Friend usually has contact with reality, but tonight I think that he has lost it. The liaison with that and the speech of the hon. Member for East Lindsay (Sir P. Tapsell), who unfortunately has left—[HON. MEMBERS: "He is there."] Ah, there he is. I welcome him to the Chamber—is one of the oddest that I have seen.

The hon. Member for East Lindsay claims to know something about Turkey, but he probably knows rather less about Turkey than I. He may know the bankers, and all those people, but I know a lot more about Turkey than that. He seems to forget when he mentions Turkey that there is a Turkish battalion in UNPROFOR. Are the Turks going to be agreeable to the withdrawal of their battalion when the Serbs are committing Muslim murders? He, too, has lost contact—just a bit—with reality. I have to say that much worse than that was the tone of the hon. Gentleman's comments this afternoon. I am old enough to recall exactly that tone of appeasement by the Tories before the last war. I never thought that I would live—I will probably not live to hear it again—to hear that sort of comment again in the House of Commons.

The Serbs have been the guilty party since the break up of Yugoslavia. I do not think that even the apologists would try to pretend that the situation is anything other than that. The Serbs were the protagonists and the practitioners of ethnic cleansing and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of members of the other communities in the old Yugoslavia. Why? It is because of their lunatic commitment to the Greater Serbia fantasy of the Serbian Orthodox Church. They have been the most criminal—nobody is going to argue with that—in their conduct of organised rape of thousands and thousands of women and the practice of torture and murder of thousands and thousands and thousands of prisoners. And their conduct does not change. It really is beyond the pale of civilised behaviour. Their bombardment of Tuzla, pointless in any military terms, left 200 people either dead or injured. They have taken hostage soldiers of various nationalities in the UN force, which is absolutely unacceptable, and they have even chained them, some of them, as potential targets to try to stop any sort of western action. The Serbs have masqueraded as UN troops and are using UN weapons and equipment.

Those actions, of course, are quite contrary to and an absolute contravention of international agreements. All that is the conduct of Christian soldiers under their two internationally notorious criminal leaders, the fanatic Karadzic and the thug Mladic, who must eventually—I hope that the international community ensures this—be held to account, as must Milosevic, that chief proponent of Greater Serbia, with whom we are now trying to do a political deal. Greater Serbia is a political fantasy as historically incorrect and offensive as Zionism's Eretz Israel. I have to say that I have no great hope of Mr. Milosevic's conversion.

Having denied the Bosnian Muslims the arms to defend themselves, the international community cannot now allow such people as these criminals Serbs to force a UN withdrawal. That would give ethnic aggression and cleansing its head in various other areas of the world and the effectiveness of the UN would be very much destroyed.

In speeches that I made in this House two and three years ago, I argued that the only realistic way to stop Serb aggression was, first, to withdraw UN forces to prevent their becoming hostages—perhaps I should have been listened to. NATO could then deal with the Serbs, as they are going to have to be dealt with unless we are going to abandon totally any principle in political life in this country and in Europe. We must take out the Serbs' artillery, their air fields. We must disrupt their communications and destroy their arms factories. While the Bosnian Muslims are denied arms, the Serbs are having them manufactured throughout the old Yugoslavia for their use.

Of course, there would have been and there will be heavy, heavy casualties among the Serbs and among the civilians of all faiths if the necessary action is taken. But there have been, over these years, in any case, hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and there will be many hundreds of thousands more if the international community withdraws and allows the belligerents of all sides to fight it out to the bloody end. That, I believe, is the likely outcome of European procrastination—the Minister of State for the Armed Forces had better listen—and timidity.

I fear that the present performance of sending in numbers of reinforcements is not—do not let us be conned—not in reality to face down the Serbs, to take them on and best them and force a negotiated settlement upon them. I am convinced, regardless of the rhetoric and the pretence, that these reinforcements are a preparation for evacuation. I believe that is what will undoubtedly evolve eventually from all the convocations that have been summoned and are likely to be summoned.

If my suspicions are correct—and I think they are—and the wimps and the wobblies on the other side have their way and withdrawal is undertaken, the war will of course spread, as the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats stated. It will spread into Kosovo and Macedonia, and between Greece and Turkey, and a fully fledged Balkans war will ensue, with horrendous slaughter.

As I have warned on a number of occasions, the effect of such developments on our relations with the Muslim world will be immensely damaging—right across the world, in all the Muslim communities throughout the world in both economic and political terms. The world balance of power is changing away from the west and it is time we started to appreciate this fact. There is a gathering together of the immensely increasing political and economic power and resources of Muslim nations and communities throughout Asia, south-east Asia, Africa, the middle east and, of course, in the old Turkic areas of the Soviet Union.

That new world movement will have as its dynamic and its purpose a rejection of all the works and all the interests of the western world. I wish, I wish British politicians had a little more intelligence.

7.10 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), but I fear that he may not enjoy mine much. The original role in Bosnia was one of distributing humanitarian aid and medical support and of promoting peace. The idea was that the presence of blue berets and blue helmets in that country would promote confidence, and that that in itself would help to promote peace.

Then tasks were added to those that our troops already had through the United Nations. They were given the safe havens to look after, although when they were given the denominated safe havens they were not given the troops to provide the necessary support. Although that role was rather unrealistic, for some time it seemed as if it might have some success. The Muslim-Croat federation emerged, and there was peace between the Muslims and the Croats. In Sarajevo, thanks to the extraordinary courage and leadership of General Sir Michael Rose, the trams were running again, and for a time it seemed as if things were indeed returning to normal. The ceasefire was scheduled to end on 1 May this year, but it looked as though things were moving the right way.

What has become apparent now is the extent to which all that success required consent—consent that is not now present on the Serb side in Bosnia. Things have started going seriously wrong. The Muslims have taken the opportunity to rearm, and it is clear that they are re-equipped and rearmed with all that they need apart from tanks, heavy armour and aircraft.

The Croats in the federation have taken the opportunity to take western Slavonia. Despite the United Nations presence, in the United Kingdom sector alone in the past few months—in Vitez, in Gornji Vakuf and in Novi Travnik—the Defence Committee has seen the extent to which war and ethnic cleansing could go raging through the towns while all that the UN soldiers could do was to stay in their barracks and hope that the problem would resolve itself without their being involved. The troops were in no way equipped to prevent the wars from raging through the towns in which they were based. So it has become increasingly apparent that the position in Bosnia is unrealistic.

As for humanitarian aid, I am always rather suspicious when I am given two good reasons for something. And we are given two good reasons why our troops and the other United Nations troops are in Bosnia at the moment. The first "good reason" is that by being there we are preventing a third world war. Our assistance in the distribution of humanitarian aid is apparently the second valid reason for our being there.

However, it is arguable that humanitarian aid may be extending the conflict, because the United Nations is underwriting the basic needs of the population. I attribute that thought to Patrick Bishop of The Daily Telegraph, who spoke to the Conservative defence committee recently; I am following his thought through. He cited Clausewitz, who points out that sometimes for war to end it is necessary for the population to come to a culminating point where such is the exhaustion and war-weariness of all the people that they turn away from war, realising that it is getting them nowhere.

Those who have studied history and politics will realise that that was the case with the hundred years war and the thirty years war. But if one underwrites the basic needs of the population, the population will not come to that point and there will not be that pressure on the war leaders to end the war. So, however unattractive the thought may be, there are two sides to the distribution of humanitarian aid,

What role is there now for the United Nations forces and the United Kingdom contribution? First, of course, we must resolve the hostage situation without benefit to those who set it up. We must be certain that blackmail does not pay; that must be our first priority. Secondly, we need to consolidate our position and ensure that our troops are less exposed in Bosnia.

Thirdly, we need to take account of the fact that there is a total contrast between the manner in which forces can operate with consent and without consent. So far our forces have operated with consent. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) said that he found it surprising that hostages could have been taken, because during his time in the armed forces he would not have thought it likely or possible that that could happen. My right hon. Friend is not in the Chamber now, but I must tell him that the situation in Bosnia has been completely different.

When we are operating with consent, the United Nations forces simply go along the street with their guns, walking past people of the three different sides, who also have guns. They are waved through a checkpoint at which Muslims point guns at them, they then go through a Croat checkpoint where a Croat tank is pointed at them, and as they move on they may even pass through a Serbian checkpoint too. All those people have guns. In Tomislavgrad I found that the United Nations forces were sharing barracks with the Croats. Our soldiers are rubbing shoulders with such people all the time. It is the easiest thing in the world for any of the factions or their subordinate gangs to hold up United Nations troops and take them away, simply by pointing guns at them. So it is not surprising that hostages were taken.

There is a total contrast between the manner of operation in areas in which we have consent and areas in which we do not. Without consent we cannot operate in the manner for which the mandate has been set up in Bosnia. It is inconceivable that we can long continue in the position that has existed for some weeks in which our troops are within gun range of the Serb positions while we are bombing the Serbs or calling in air strikes against them.

How can we expect the Serbs not to retaliate if we have ordered air strikes that have killed some of their people or damaged some of their property? Can we seriously expect to walk past them and be waved through the next checkpoint, when they have guns? Of course not. The two methods of operation are inconsistent. Anyone who dreams in that fashion is, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, misleading himself.

We must resolve that problem, which has now come to a head. If we do not have consent we must work out where we go from here. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition talked about strengthening the forces engaged in humanitarian relief, and about strengthening the peacekeepers. But how can we think in those terms when we shall not be permitted to carry those intentions out? I submit that the previous mandate has expired, because it depended on consent.

Is it realistic to think that we can continue to protect the safe havens if we are now under attack there? It is not. Neither is it realistic to imagine that 15,000 troops could defend Sarajevo. We should need many more than that, bearing in mind the fact that it would take only two men felling a tree to block the road leading to the main British positions at Gornji Vakuv and Vitez. As others have already said, we are facing troops with wide experience in an area of the country noted for its guerilla activities. We shall need many more people than the numbers so far contemplated if we are to stand a chance of succeeding in carrying out our mandate there.

The risk in which our troops are positioned is extraordinary. When the Defence Select Committee was in Bosnia two months ago, we were told the following story. The Serbs told a Canadian unit that they proposed to shell it the following day. So the colonel in charge of the Canadian unit quite sensibly thinned out his positions, and sent some of his troops out of the barracks; they were stopped in the street outside by Muslims, who got their people to stand in front of the Canadians' armoured cars—known as grizzlies. The Muslims told the Canadians, "If you keep going, we'll shell you where you are now." The Canadians went back into the barracks, whereupon they were shelled by the Serbs. That is the problem faced in Bosnia, not only with the Serbs but in places such as Gornji Vakuf and Vitez, where the battle is between Muslims and Croats.

We had 3,500 of our troops exposed to this sort of risk last week; next month 9,500 of them will be thus exposed. And for what? My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to a turning point in Bosnia, and thought that it might have come at this time. I do not agree; but he also referred to a time that might come when humanitarian aid and peace promotion became impossible. I submit that that time has come. I believe that no longer should our troops remain in Bosnia on the basis on which they were originally sent there, which depended on consent.

I am not squeamish about troops being engaged in support of the UN in Bosnia—but we cannot carry on with the previous mandate, which depended on consent. We should be considering strategic aims in Bosnia. Then, if we can make a contribution to those revised strategic aims, by all means let us keep our troops there. But on the current mandate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


7.21 pm
Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

I visited Tuzla during the Easter recess and talked to many of its citizens—Serbs, Croats and Muslims. For all I know, some of the people to whom I talked then have become victims of the shelling of the past few days. I also met the Bosnian Foreign Minister during his last visit to this country. While we are conscious of our own anguish at the fate of our British soldiers, we should also remember that fate against the background of the suffering that the ordinary people of Bosnia have undergone for the past two or three years.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)—not in his place now—made a most important speech today. One of his key points concerned the importance of adjusting the current rules of engagement under which all the UN forces operate. That chimed with what Brigadier Michael Harbottle told Members of both Houses when he spoke to us in one of the Committee Rooms in November last year about the nature of UN peacekeeping. He served with the UN forces in Cyprus in the 1960s and went on to write the UN peacekeeping manual.

In his talk, the brigadier described one of his tasks in Cyprus, which was to defend a village which happened to be a Turkish village being threatened by some Greek soldiers. Brigadier Harbottle explained that the advantage he had, as compared with Bosnia, was that he possessed crystal clear rules of engagement. So when the Greek soldiers began moving towards the village and the UN soldiers interposed between the Greeks and the Turks, the brigadier was able to tell the Greek soldiers, "If you move within 200 yd of the UN soldiers, you will be infringing our ability to carry out our mandate and we will shoot." The Greek soldiers withdrew.

That contrasts markedly with what has been happening in recent days in Bosnia. Armed men have been able to walk right up to UN positions and disarm UN soldiers. If the UN rules of engagement in Cyprus in the 1960s were able to prevent such a thing from happening, we have to ask why such rules of engagement have not been applied in the past couple of years in Bosnia.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) talked about the importance of consent. I think that he is much mistaken about the auspices under which UN forces in Bosnia are supposed to be operating. The objectives of the UN are clear, as are the objectives for the reinforcements who are being sent out. They are provided by UN resolutions 770, which concerns ensuring the delivery of aid, 816, which is about enforcing the no-fly zone, and 824 and 836, which are about the protection of so-called safe areas and deterring attacks on them. These mandates do not rely on consent, however. They are enforcement resolutions, and they do not depend on the consent of the Bosnian Serbs or of any other party. They demand compliance, and the resolutions authorise their enforcement "by all necessary means".

It is important, too, to remember that these resolutions were passed under chapter 7 of the UN charter, which authorises the use of force without the consent of local parties. Peacekeeping which requires consent is authorised under chapter 6. I agree with those who have said that what is happening is not peacekeeping because there is no peace to keep—that is obvious. I agree, too, that it is not peacemaking; that would require a much larger deployment of forces. It is a humanitarian mission, as set out in the relevant resolutions, but a humanitarian mission under chapter 7, which demands enforcement. That point has escaped many of those who have spoken today.

The problem has been that the UN forces sent out to enforce the mandate have been too lightly armed and have been wrongly deployed to carry out their task. Whenever a mandate has been thwarted by Bosnian Serbs, UNPROFOR has been unable to respond effectively because it has been undergunned and overexposed. Both those problems have crippled the effectiveness of UNPROFOR and have made the jobs of its commanders almost impossible. That is why the reinforcement is so necessary and is to be supported and welcomed.

Over the next few days and weeks, we need a patient build-up and a regrouping and redeployment of UN forces. If there was one thing I was sorry to hear the Prime Minister say, it was that the Air Mobile Brigade had still not been given its orders to be dispatched. Regardless of what happens in the next couple of days, it is crucial that that brigade go if we are to prevent a repetition of events.

Once the regrouping has taken place, we must give full backing and full tactical freedom to General Smith to carry out the job that we have asked him to do: to enforce the mandates. The only restriction on his freedom to call on air support, artillery and indeed all the forces at his disposal should be our humanitarian wish to avoid civilian casualties. But General Smith must have the full support and confidence of the international community when carrying out that task.

Regrouping is certainly the key, but we must also be very careful about certain other aspects. There must be no concessions, for instance, to the hostage takers. It seems obvious that giving concessions will only encourage them to hold on to hostages and to seize more of them. There must be no abandonment of the safe areas. UNPROFOR must maintain a presence—regrouping notwithstanding—even in the most vulnerable safe areas. There must be no more talk by the Government of withdrawal. I cannot think of anything more designed to undermine the sense of purpose and the morale of our troops than Ministers constantly speculating on the possibility of defeat, reversal and withdrawal. By all means let us make contingency plans, but for God's sake let us not talk about them.

There is no need to go beyond the tasks outlined in the UN resolutions. It is not a question of retaking Serb territory or of imposing a ceasefire on a vast territory. The mandate is specific, and lays out clear tasks. We now need a proper enforcement of those tasks. There must be no more fudging or muddling through in the execution of the mandate.

I pay full credit to General Smith for the deliberate and clear way in which he has forced the issue over the past few days. He has refused to play the politicians' game at the expense of the mandate that he was asked to enforce. To insinuate or to suggest—as some have done—that somehow General Smith's hand was forced by the Americans when he called in the air strikes is both insulting and absurd to those who know General Smith and who had the privilege of meeting him early last year. I have no doubt whatsoever that he did what he did for a purpose and to calculated effect.

We should support the deployment of reinforcements. In fact, we should support the deployment of whatever General Smith advises is necessary to enforce the existing mandate. That must be the bottom line. My only complaint would be—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


7.31 pm
Mr, Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

It is excellent that this special debate during the Whit recess has brought forward speeches of such passion and conviction, and it has formed some rather odd alliances across the Floor of the House. I have taken part in three debates on Bosnia; each time the mood has been that we must not put more troops in the area, but each time we have found at the next debate that we have raised the level of our commitment.

As a former Regular soldier and the chairman of the parliamentary UN group, I approach the subject of Bosnia with mixed feelings. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber, made an excellent speech. I admire the leadership that my right hon. Friend has shown during the past four days, which I cannot help contrasting with what has come out of the White House in the same period.

I pay tribute to the professionalism and dedication of senior and junior British soldiers in Bosnia in recent months and in the past three years. Although I have not been surprised by that professionalism, or by their logistical abilities and communications skills, the Bosnian crisis has brought those skills to light for many people.

I am concerned at the ever-increasing involvement of the United Kingdom in former Yugoslavia, and at the ever-increasing commitment of the UN. The immediate cause of this debate is the taking of the hostages, a despicable act which goes against all forms of international morality and behaviour. Diplomacy is the immediate way forward, and patience is the key word. I am reminded of the old adage—"Talk softly but carry a big stick".

The hostage takers must be told in person of the resolve of this House and the Government to get every single hostage released. They must have no doubt that we are prepared to be ruthless, and that we will take the most serious steps to achieve that objective if patient negotiation fails. It would be crazy to think of withdrawing our troops in the light of the hostage taking.

Having said that, I want to express my sense of alarm at how events have moved on swiftly and seriously in the past three years. The media love giving labels, and I am a minimalist. I was against sending the Cheshire Regiment, but I pay tribute to it for its performance in the area. I have been alarmed at the declaration of safe zones, because UNPROFOR has had neither the ability nor the backing to guarantee their safety.

The UN has been desperately exposed. I have been told of an occasion a few months ago when Canadian troops were seriously threatened in a safe area and asked the United Kingdom Government if we would be prepared to use our air power to protect their troops on the ground. After a certain amount of argy-bargy, we stated that we would do so. The consequences of using our aircraft in a deployment to defend such a position would be quite extraordinary, and far beyond anything contemplated so far by the Government—let alone the House of Commons.

The concept of the air strikes is highly questionable. As an ex-military man, I am amazed at the idea of using the most advanced fighter bombers in the world to destroy a tank that may be 40 or 50 years old. Such a strike involves putting that plane at risk of an attack from a comparatively unsophisticated surface-to-air missile. I do not believe that these attacks have done much damage to the Serbs, but they have done some damage to NATO and to the UN.

We are talking about the important concept of peacekeeping, and not peacemaking as we had in Korea. There is a subtle difference between them, and we are foolish if we do not understand it. Peacekeeping involves white vehicles and blue helmets which can be seen from a distance. It demands talking to both sides, and walking openly down streets. Conventional warfare involves deceit, deception, camouflage and surprise movements, and it is an entirely different military concept. As events have moved on in the past three years, those two concepts have become blurred. I believe that that is highly dangerous.

In two first-class speeches, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition over-egged the case for UNPROFOR, and I am sure that they would admit that. Yes, it is had its successes, and we are proud of those. But the risks have been enormous, and we have been lucky not to have had more British casualties. The French have had a far higher number.

We are proud of the humanitarian record, but we all know that a considerable amount of the food that we have brought to mountain villages has been supplying the forces taking part in the conflict. That is the brutal reality. We may not like it, but we must accept that it is true. We are dealing not with proper standing armies but with voluntary armies. A lad serving in such an army will go back and have supper with his mum, and he will be eating UN rations. The same is true with regard to medical supplies, where the situation has been horrendous. Some of the supplies have gone to the combatants and have helped to shield them from the reality of the civil war which has been raging for so long in that country. That war will continue to rage.

At the moment, the Serbs have probably reached a peak. We are told that their rivals have been getting a considerable number of weapons and recruits, and they are likely to regain some of the ground that they have lost. There is no way in which UNPROFOR can stop the two sides fighting if the Muslims are determined to regain the territory they have lost to the Serbs. So what are my conclusions? When the present hostage-taking episode has passed, as it will, Britain and France—which work well and closely together in the context of Bosnia—should say to their colleagues on the Security Council, "We do not believe that we should shoulder this burden for ever. The United Nations is in danger of becoming part of the problem in that unhappy, troubled country because expectations are too high." The UN can postpone problems but cannot necessarily prevent them. It is hopelessly overextended in the world, particularly in Bosnia. The UN has a role in Bosnia, but does UNPROFOR have a role there over the next five, 10 or 15 years? I have to say no.

It is easy for us all to imagine that the UN in 1995 can take on the burdens of the world and solve Angola and Nagorno Karabakh. In reality, it cannot. If people are determined to fight, rape, pillage, and go in for ethnic cleansing and policies of degradation and despair, the UN cannot stop them. It needs to sort out its new priorities on a global scale. I fear that means scaling down its troops in Bosnia.

7.40 pm
Mr. Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston)

I pay tribute to the members of the armed forces in the former Yugoslavia, particularly those who have been taken hostage, and sympathise-with their relatives and friends.

It is an understatement to say that we face a difficult situation in the former Yugoslavia. We all, including the Bosnian Serbs, know that the solution will not be military. Eventually, all sides in that troubled area must get together and compromise. We must continue to contribute to a negotiated and permanent settlement, but until there is movement in that direction we must offer the services of our armed forces in whatever role is necessary on the understanding that there will be a negotiated, not military, settlement.

We must continue to protect and help feed people in the most vulnerable eastern enclaves and elsewhere, and we must use our influence around the world's conference tables to maintain the support of NATO and UN colleagues. It is almost impossible to balance the provision of humanitarian aid and protecting civilians and our own forces—which may at times mean the deterrent of aggression and striking back. It is not easy to reconcile those contradictory roles, but we must persist. We cannot give any undertaking to the Bosnian Serbs in Pale that there will be no further air strikes in return for the release of hostages. As other hon. Members explained that aspect well, I shall not elaborate.

It is time to talk, but talks should be from a position of unbending strength, not weakness. I support the movement of additional ground troops to protect the UN peacekeeping contingent and agencies taking further food, clothing and medical supplies to the enclaves. It is pleasing that there was a consensus at the NATO conference that the method of operation should be changed, with the strengthening of troops on the ground. Those forces have an unenviable role, and the operation is expensive financially and in human terms.

The world is at a crossroads. We have moved on from the stability—if that is the word—of the cold war and can either withdraw behind our own borders and pretend that we have no responsibility to anyone else or work at becoming a proper world community. If we fail to take responsibility in the former Yugoslavia, we will be unable to assist anywhere else in the world and we will send a signal to powers with selfish motives that they can get away with it if they try. We must work and work until we make the UN an effective organisation. That is the only way forward.

That will cost more in the short term, but we must look ahead. I have little interest in rugby, but it has been inspirational to watch nations of the world playing together and South Africa competing again, with teams from Romania and Argentina. When we see such progress, there is hope for the future.

I want no barriers or borders to world travel. Many people in this country question risking the lives of British soldiers and incurring heavy costs to help people who appear to be inflicting damage on each other. Many say that they should be left to fight it out. It is understandable that some factions in the former Yugoslavia earn criticism and disregard, but the children of Bosnia are the children of us all. They are the children of the world and we cannot neglect them, whatever we may think of the adults. I want those children to grow up in a world free of conflict, to live a full life of education and leisure. I want them to look forward to bringing up families of their own in peace and security.

I want my children and grandchildren to be able to visit the former Yugoslavia as holidaymakers among those friendly people, as my parents and I have done. I look forward to the time when the world can be policed without the need for armies, but to achieve that we must make sacrifices now. We must act with restraint but use force when necessary.

We do not need to look back as far as the last war to learn the lessons. We need to look back only at the early stages of the present conflict in the former Yugoslavia, when a more determined and united effort would almost certainly have saved a great number of lives.

7.46 pm
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

The British hostages taken in Bosnia serve in the 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers. I served in the Army in the 53rd Welsh Division alongside men of the 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1944–45. It is a chastening thought for me that the men taken hostage are probably the grandsons of men who served alongside me. If they are like their grandfathers, they will face up to the situation—as will their families.

In an article published at the weekend, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: Those who felt right from the start that we could solve everything through air strikes have never thought through some of the possible implications. Hostage taking was always one of them. He was absolutely right. All the lessons of modern war make it clear that air power alone cannot force a determined enemy to the negotiating table. Of course it is comfortable to have aircraft circling above and it makes one feel much better—but, in the end, one must have men on the ground to win battles. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members who, over the past two years, have been harrying members of the Government Front Bench and calling for air strikes now realise the stupidity of that policy. I am delighted to see the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman nodding his head.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

The hon. Gentleman has never heard me argue that all the problems could be solved by using air strikes.

Sir Jim Spicer

I realise that, but perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman will have a word with his leader. I am delighted to see that the leader of the Liberal Democrats has rejoined us.

Mr. Ashdown


Sir Jim Spicer

I am afraid that I cannot allow the right hon. Gentleman to intervene because I have only 10 minutes in which to speak.

At the time of Suez, many others and I questioned our country's actions, believing that the politicians had not really thought through our precise objectives, how we could achieve them and where it all might end. Bosnia is a totally different story and the Prime Minister rightly set out the dangers of bloody massacres and of a major conflagration if the UN and, in particular, members of the NATO alliance were to cut and run.

I must take issue with hon. Members who have spoken about Turkey. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) said that it is absolute nonsense to talk about Turkey becoming involved. Turkey is involved, not just with a Turkish battalion on the ground but through Turkish public opinion. Senior members of the Turkish Government will not stand by and let their "communities", as they see them, be overrun in Bosnia. So, if anybody has any illusions on that count, may I dispel them here and now? I say with some sincerity that I formed the British-Turkish parliamentary group in 1974 and I know Turkey almost as well as anyone in the House.

The men of the Devon and Dorsets arrived in Bosnia only last month. They are my county regiment and they will serve us well there, but they and all the other service men in Bosnia will be questioning their role at this moment and wondering just where it will all end. I think that they will take heart from the decisions made by our Government last weekend. We all know that our armed forces are the best in the world. Of course they are. They are professional and they have a great sense of purpose, but they need to be reinforced in that sense of purpose so that they can be sure that the job that they are doing is worth while. In Bosnia, there was such a sense of purpose when the role of our armed forces was peacekeeping and humanitarian. They knew exactly where they were. Now we are in more dangerous territory. The line between peacekeeping and peacemaking becomes very blurred. My concern is that we may stumble across that line and become engaged in a savage and brutal war, which would need massive ground reinforcements.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his speech today, made it quite clear that, in that case, there might be no alternative but for us to leave. Even taking account of that, from where would such massive reinforcements have come? The reality is that no major nation, other than Britain and France, has either the intention or the will to commit more ground forces. Indeed, many of the national contingents already in Bosnia may well be withdrawn or reduced over the next few months. The question for Ministers tonight is this: are there plans to get the other allies in NATO and the UN to change their minds and to reinforce instead of moving out? We have to decide our priorities in the full knowledge that, from others, we may have only words, not deeds. That said, our Government are absolutely right to reinforce our ground forces and to take every possible contingency action to give them increased protection and fire power in what I hope will be safer base areas, where we do not have people on outposts able to be picked up at the drop of a hat.

The options now are plain: the United Nations must commit more troops, take on the Serbs—or, for that matter, anyone else who cuts across us—or withdraw. Britain and France cannot and should not shoulder the main burden of providing additional ground forces in the future. Neither option, to stay or to go, is palatable. We are absolutely right to prepare and to dispose our forces so that they are ready to do either. I personally hope that, in the circumstances that now exist, we will be able to remain. But if we cannot remain, getting out, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said on the radio yesterday, will be just as difficult as staying. Therefore, let us stay, stick it out and play our part and give a lead to others.

7.53 pm
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

The hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) spoke warmly of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The thoughts of the people of Wales tonight are with the 33 young men from the Royal Welch Fusiliers who are currently held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs. Our thoughts are with them and their families and we all pray for their safe release and return. We utterly condemn the outrageous actions of the Bosnian Serbs in taking young soldiers as hostages. They are part of the United Nations peacekeeping force, dedicated to ensuring the safety of civilians and the safe passage of humanitarian supplies. To have their lives endangered is totally unacceptable.

United Nations forces, with representatives from 18 nations, have already carried out their duties with great skill and professionalism. Without doubt, their presence, as we have heard today, has saved the lives of thousands of men, women and children. We have all been horrified by the atrocities that have been perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia, in the main by Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. The practice of ethnic cleansing has shocked us beyond belief. In these very difficult circumstances, the troops of the United Nations have carried out their duties, on behalf of all of us who share the view that the west, and Europe in particular in this case, has a responsibility to the innocent people who are caught in the middle of a bloody conflict.

It must be said, however, that, from time to time, United Nations missions in Bosnia have lacked clarity, and a lack of a strategic objective has hampered their operation. We already have three resolutions governing the rules of engagement and the deployment of troops to safe areas. Because some of those safe areas are remote and isolated, troops stationed in them have always been vulnerable to Serb aggression. What happened to the Royal Welch Fusiliers in Gorazde is a case in point.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

As the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who find themselves in these difficulties, does he recall that, as the 23rd of foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers took part in the siege of Lucknow, the siege of the Pekin legations and at Kohima? They will give a very good account of themselves.

Mr. Jones

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention.

We have to remember that the remaining troops currently in the safe area of Gorazde could be trapped and that they would not be able to leave, except through Serb-held territory. Given those circumstances, however emotional the appeal might be for withdrawal, in these circumstances it is simply neither practical nor logistically possible. We need an assurance from the Government that the deployment of further troops to Bosnia will give better protection to the existing forces, and their withdrawal, if necessary, from the safe areas where the risk to their safety is considered to be unacceptable. We also want assurances that the Government see the deployment of those further troops as a way to increase pressure on the Serbs to release the hostages held by them and that nothing will be done to harm their welfare in the meantime.

We must also accept that much stronger action at an earlier date would have prevented the Serbs from believing that the international community would hold back from action at crucial times. That lack of clear leadership has allowed the Serbs to think that, although strong words have been used to condemn their actions, they have not always been followed by resolute action. We have to criticise, quite forcefully, the decision to launch air strikes when troops were vulnerable. That is an issue on which we should be absolutely clear. I think that there has been a division of opinion between the European nations and the United States on that issue. If the United States felt that the only way in which it could be seen to be taking strong action was to organise air strikes, it has put European troops in difficulty. In my view, the Government should take up that issue with the United States.

A number of matters are important for us to consider in the light of the announcement by the Government today. I shall make half a dozen short points. First, we recognise that the deployment of further troops is necessary to give support to existing United Nations forces, provided, of course, that we see the release of the hostages as a top priority. We want to see them released safe and well. Secondly, the troops, if necessary, should be removed from the safe areas that are too remote or vulnerable to be given proper support. Thirdly, there should be no withdrawal of peacekeeping forces at present. Not only would that be a massive and, perhaps, fatal blow to the authority of the United Nations but it would be a humiliation and an acceptance that Serb aggression had triumphed. Terrorism perpetrated against 33 young soldiers cannot be rewarded in that way. However, the situation must be closely monitored, and the withdrawal of troops would need to be contemplated at some future date if the situation deteriorated to such an extent that the safety of United Nations troops was unacceptably compromised.

Fourthly, the diplomatic efforts to find a solution should be stepped up. The Bosnian Serbs must be made to understand that they face international isolation as a result of their recent actions. The diplomatic effort should be channelled into securing the recognition of the state of Bosnia, by the international community, the Bosnian Serbs and the Serb nation. That would be the clearest possible signal to the Bosnian Serbs that the international community is serious on this occasion.

Fifthly, the action taken to bolster the security of the troops already deployed would also act as a demonstration of the will of the international community to send a clear message to the warring factions. Although the United Nations should not contemplate all-out war, it should send the clearest possible signal that holding troops as hostages is an act of terrorism and cannot be allowed to pass. A proactive stance in the current situation would send such a signal.

Finally, the United Nations must be clear in its objectives, which must be to secure the recognition of Bosnia by diplomacy, as well as strengthening and supporting the peacekeeping forces and reducing their vulnerability in the face of Serbian aggression. To achieve that end, the Security Council's resolutions may need to be revised to allow greater flexibility of action when necessary.

The people of Wales share the anguish and concern for the welfare and safety of the 33 young men taken by the Bosnian Serbs. I am sure that the whole House will join me in calling for their immediate release and asking that their families be spared further anguish. We recognise the role that they have played, as part of the forces in Bosnia, in securing the delivery of humanitarian aid to the civilian population. They must remain in our thoughts as further action is contemplated, and their release must remain our top priority. They would also wish us, I am sure, to persevere with our efforts to seek a lasting peace in that troubled country.

We ask that those new efforts be channelled through the United Nations—an organisation whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year. The UN's authority must be maintained, otherwise we are all weakened in our efforts to deter unwarranted military aggression in any part of the world.

8.1 pm

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

It is a pleasure and a privilege to take part in this debate. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) did well to end his speech by reminding us of the plight of the families of the 33 soldiers who have been taken hostage. One of the questions that those of my generation ask ourselves before embarking on a political career is in what circumstances we would ask the young men of this country to risk their lives on our behalf. For those of us who were brought up in the shadow of the war, and whose characters were much formed by the consequences of the war, that is a big and important question.

Many Conservative Members fear that we may be slowly becoming embroiled in something not unlike a British Vietnam. We begin to become very concerned as we see the changing role of the British troops in Bosnia.

I do not want to repeat all the arguments put so very well by my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell). Three arguments have been advanced as our involvement has become ever greater. The first has been the humanitarian argument. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport that it seems that action under that head has failed, and it is certainly highly likely that much of the food and aid has not—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not true."] At any rate, it was hoped that humanitarian aid would end the fighting and the tension and it has not. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] All right. If it has succeeded, it is rather strange that all these unfortunate persons have been kidnapped and that the House is sitting today.

The second argument for involvement has been the peacekeeping argument, and I should have thought that that, too, had failed. If it had succeeded, there would have been no need for the House to convene for this special debate.

A third argument is now being used—an argument, I may say, that was not being advanced at the beginning—which is that there is a British national interest in attempting to stop a war spreading across the map of Europe, particularly if that war would range the United States and Russia on different sides. That is a proper argument. That argument—the risk of danger to the British national interest—is an argument that we, as Tories, have always advanced to justify any risk to British soldiers. But the British national interest does not exist merely because a politician declares that it exists: it exists because it is felt by the British people and because it is conceived by British mothers and British families to be a purpose for which they are prepared to see their sons die.

That was certainly felt about the Falklands—perhaps to a greater extent by the British people than by the British political class. The strength of feeling, which I recollect, on the Saturday when we debated the Falklands war surprised many people. It certainly surprised many of the people detached from ordinary emotions, who see these things in terms of legalistic peacekeeping, with references to the United Nations, the European Union and the concept of international law. That was not what was being expressed on that important Saturday. Instead, there was the feeling that British people and British territory had been conquered; that the wrong must be righted as quickly as possible; and that to that end it was justifiable to suffer casualties and the loss of lives. There is at present no such feeling about our involvement in Bosnia.

There is nothing more dangerous than a half-hearted war. It gives the wrong signal to each and every person, section of the community and ally involved. We are in danger of getting sucked into a half-hearted war—a war which will be damaging and dangerous to our service men; which will undermine our honour; which will certainly give us a false impression of our resolve. We should engage in war only if we are satisfied that the British people see that their interest is involved. On that point, I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath): this is not an occasion on which we should engage in war. We should send some more troops, but we should send them to facilitate the return of those troops already there. We should not get involved in what could become a British Vietnam.

8.8 pm

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I join the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger)—the only two Welsh Members who have spoken during this debate—in voicing concern about the 33 members of the Royal Welch Fusiliers who are now hostages. One of them is a constituent of mine. His family do not want his name to be known. He was married only four days before he was sent to Bosnia in February and his new wife and his family are naturally very concerned about his fate. I hope that the safety of the hostages will be paramount in any discussions that the Government have with those who have any influence in this matter.

We must make it clear to those holding the men that they have absolutely nothing to gain by trying to use them as blackmail material in this awful war. In my view, talk of withdrawal in response to hostage taking is reprehensible and should not on any account be supported. We should now be asking ourselves how we should discharge our responsibilities to enforce the current UN mandate and to bring about a negotiated settlement.

I disagree with the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), who said that we need not analyse the past. I think that we need to analyse the past, however briefly. Past mistakes by the contact group and other external actors on the stage include wholly inadequate political and diplomatic responses to ethnic cleansing and other actions—perpetrated principally by the Serbs, but also by the Croats—wholly inadequate pressure on the Serbians to limit support for Bosnian Serbs, tardy imposition of sanctions and inadequate attempts to achieve unity among the contact group, in particular, the lack of political leadership by France and Britain with regard to resolving US-Russian differences. The hon. Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell) described it as treating the Russians casually.

Despite all that, for three years the British troops and other have helped hundreds of thousands of ordinary Bosnians to survive the war. They have aided the starving, provided shelter for the homeless, brought medical aid to the injured and stamped out some of the most awful brutality. We have tried to help, whatever the Bosnian Government say. Pulling out would mean the end of that aid and the probable collapse of the enclaves, causing a huge flight of people and leaving thousands defenceless against the ethnic cleansers. Is that what we want?

Three broad options exist, which have been spelt out this afternoon. They are massively to expand military forces to enforce a peace, especially on the Bosnian Serbs; withdrawal of UN military forces and humanitarian relief in the belief that the war will be brought to a conclusion; and continuing peacekeeping operations at broadly current levels, but with changes in rules of engagement coupled with selective withdrawals from exposed areas—all accompanied by systematic increases in diplomatic pressure.

There is clearly not the political will in the House to enforce a peace by military means. Large-scale force might have suppressed the conflict at an earlier stage—and I was in favour of that—but it would probably now incite guerrilla responses, ultimately backed by Serbia. Withdrawal would represent the second UN defeat in recent years—after Somalia—but would be politically much more significant than that. In the likely ensuing upsurge in conflict, any Bosnian Government successes would bring in Serbian support for Bosnian Serbs, leading to an escalation; any Bosnian Serb successes would bring in unofficial—and perhaps official—support from middle east states, leading to an escalation.

Pressure for withdrawal is understandable, but the almost inevitable result would be a substantial widening of the war, heavy civilian casualties and a dangerous regional instability. However unsatisfactory, the UN presence needs to be maintained, concentrating on humanitarian relief, while diplomatic pressures are systematically intensified. In that process, offensive military action and humanitarian relief are fundamentally incompatible.

Given past mistakes and political inadequacies, there are no easy answers; but the current Bosnian Serb belligerence arises partly through desperation, and Serbian support is already succumbing to external pressure. Greatly strengthening such pressure, while attempting wherever possible to suppress and contain the fighting, must surely be the best option.

8.14 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Some years ago, I dabbled in strategy at the Army staff college. I remember an old adage, which many may have heard before: "Do not march on Moscow, and do not go to war in the Balkans."

I understand—some of it was before my time—that this is the third occasion on which Parliament has been recalled to discuss international military emergencies in the past 13 years. I well remember the recall of Parliament to debate the Falklands. I was in Belize at the time as a serving soldier, but I was keen to go to the Falklands because I saw the national interest: I saw how important it was to go, and I wanted to be there. I also remember the Gulf war. I was a civilian then, but I volunteered to go to the Gulf because that too was an international emergency, and I could see the national and international interest—and, indeed, I went.

I think that everyone realises that Parliament has been recalled today in very different circumstances. It is difficult to see a clear national interest for us, or a clear aim. Sadly, however, because of the last two experiences, the feeling is abroad that whatever we do we shall win—for, notwithstanding the tragic deaths in the Falklands and many fewer deaths in the Gulf, we won relatively easily. This is a great deal less easy.

Let me deal briefly with the diplomatic disasters and failures. I refer to the failure of European Community efforts in Bosnia, and the disaster of the early recognition of Croatia and Bosnia, to which others have referred—driven largely, it must be said, by the Germans when Bosnia was not a real country. It was recognised, and now we learn from yesterday's newspapers that Chancellor Kohl considers it essential for UN troops to remain in Bosnia. We also see the failure of the United States to send any troops, only to give the most extraordinary signals in calling for air strikes—possibly using its aircraft in the process. From the White House there is a stunning silence, and certainly no offer of troops.

The UN structure in Bosnia, certainly the civilian structure, has been at best mixed. It has sent out mixed messages, and has at times been hopeless. If anyone has not read Lewis Mackenzie's book "Peacekeeper", I recommend it for the chapters in which the author describes how impossible it was to secure a clear instruction from the United Nations. The account may not be accurate, but it is an interesting reflection.

Then, last week, there was the disaster of air strikes. Some of us had warned against them for some time. When I went to Pale two years ago, I found two UN soldiers—one British, one Swedish—in a little villa, a skiing lodge on the slopes of Pale, in the sunshine. It was obvious to me then that they were hostages, and I suspect that their successors have now been taken hostage. In the past three years we have heard a good deal about the surgical use of air power, but it is not very surgical. I should like to know what the "bombers" who have called for the surgical use of air power think now; we have heard from one or two. We were told that it would send a signal to the Serbs. The Serbs have heard that signal, and have sent a signal to the United Nations.

There are those here who blame the Serbs alone. The Serbs have acted very aggressively, and have been the most culpable in the war all along; furthermore, they are acting as terrorists now and are becoming our enemies. They are not, however, the only culpable parties in Bosnia.

I should prefer to deal with the military situation. I supported the Government when they first sent troops to Bosnia to deliver aid, but I now question whether I was right to support that decision. I support the Government now, as we send reinforcements, but I urge caution, as I believe everyone has. Like the United States in Vietnam, NATO troops are being sucked into a conflict in which we are outsiders. The Bosnians—be they Serb, Muslim or Croatian in origin, and indeed Serbia and Croatia as countries—are fighting for their survival, like the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. Some will be happy to die: they feel that they are fighting in a national crusade, for some glorious cause. Our troops, however, do not feel that they are fighting in some national crusade, and I suspect that the French do not either. We are outsiders; we do not understand the passions and the politics of the Balkans. That fact was illustrated by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey), who said that the conflict was not a civil war but who then referred to Karadzic as a Bosnian Serb. How can it not be a civil war if Bosnian Serbs are fighting Bosnian Muslims and Croatians?

There is no obvious British national interest, so why are our troops in the area? They are there to deliver aid but, sadly, that is no longer possible. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that we will not wage war, so what are we there for? Our first purpose must be to free and to protect our soldiers who are being held hostage, but then what? If we are not waging war and we are unable to deliver aid, what is the mission for our commanders? What is our aim? What orders will we give our soldiers on the ground?

There has been talk about command and control and about giving the United Nations control over the reinforcements that we have sent. I do not think that the United Nations—particularly the civilian structure—has proved to be the best command structure in Bosnia. We may make a disastrous situation worse if we send our reinforcements into the same structure.

The structure of our forces and of all the United Nations forces is in penny packets. Small United Nations military observer teams are scattered around Bosnia. Their purpose is to deliver aid; they are not organised to fight a war. As we have seen in the last week, they are not even organised to defend themselves. They cannot fight at the moment, even if they want to.

The United Nations observers are in the way. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) called for more observers to be sent to the river Drina where they could be taken hostage. That is a bizarre suggestion. Even with reinforcements, the United Nations and the United Kingdom will not be able to wage war.

There has been much talk about the honour of the United Nations and of international law. In my experience, few soldiers fight for international law. They fight for Queen and country, family, mates, pay, leave and even for excitement; but I doubt that many would fight for international law.

Our troops have got stuck in and they have done incredibly well in the past three years; we all acknowledge that. However, I would suggest that they do not want to die for the cause of international law and a member of the armed forces said exactly that to me last year. For what noble cause could our troops die in Bosnia? It appears that the noble cause may be keeping two bands of cut-throats apart.

The House has enough armchair tacticians, of whom I fear I am one. I do not want to know what tactics will be employed in Bosnia; it is not my business to know the details. The right hon. Member for Yeovil asked for details about what our troops would do. I think that it is quite wrong even to ask. I do not think that the House should ask for such details because it weakens our national hand in Bosnia. If we are to be successful, we must keep the combatants, the press and, I fear, some hon. Members guessing.

General Smith is a first-class leader. I had the honour to attend his O group in the Gulf. He did an excellent job in the Gulf commanding our division and keeping a very low profile. He is extremely capable and he is an excellent person for the United Nations to have in position. He has an impossible task, but I know that the whole House wishes him well.

Many historical analogies have been bandied about today—Czechoslovakia, Munich, the Falklands and the Gulf. My analogies are Vietnam and, perhaps more aptly, Lebanon. The Government are absolutely correct to send reinforcements to Bosnia. I think that the whole House trusts General Smith and almost all hon. Members have put their trust in the decision of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to send reinforcements. I know that they are receiving excellent advice from the chiefs of staff. They have a difficult task and I do not wish to make it more difficult.

We must defend our soldiers, but what will we do when the hostages are released? That is an impossible question and I have no answers. I do not envy my right hon. Friends having to take those decisions. I remember one more thing from having dabbled in tactics 10 years ago: one should reinforce success and on no account reinforce failure.

8.24 pm
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

The House is united tonight—as I hope it will be in the future—in support of the peacekeepers and deliverers of humanitarian aid in Bosnia who are in a desperate plight. The safety and the rescue of those peacekeepers must be paramount. We should never underestimate how difficult their job has been. The peacekeepers in Bosnia have been continually humiliated, and it must be extremely difficult for a 21-year-old to be taunted time and again as he attempts to carry out his duty. I believe that the peacekeepers have operated quite well in a very dignified manner under a very difficult and narrow mandate. There is universal condemnation of those who would chain peacekeepers like animals and hold them against their will.

Last weekend I attended the spring session of the North Atlantic Assembly in Budapest and during my stay I visited a refugee camp where many Bosnians have lived for some time. I talked to young people, both Serbs and Muslims, who had lived side by side in Bosnia. They condemned their leaders out of hand and referred to them as war criminals and crazy people. I had a very good conversation with a young Serb who spoke English quite well. He urged the west to speak with people other than the self-appointed leaders and to by-pass all those who were responsible for the present carnage in Bosnia.

I admit that that is a difficult task, but it is not impossible. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) referred to the Serb Council and he reminded us how many people belong to that organisation. It may be a good idea to concentrate our efforts on opening a dialogue with the council.

In Budapest we debated an emergency motion about the crisis in Bosnia. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) seconded the motion and spoke very well on the subject. Speakers from France, the Czech republic, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, Canada, Russia and the United States participated in the debate. Speaker after speaker condemned the hostage taking and demanded the release of the prisoners. The speakers also made the point that the problems in Bosnia cannot be resolved by external military force. We must resume negotiations and, if possible, continue to deliver humanitarian aid.

I have listened to many defence debates over the years. It is quite difficult to speak in defence debates when one is female, but I have picked up as much information as I can and I believe that we have three options in Bosnia. We could opt for massive air attacks. I think that the recent bombing was a disastrous mistake which led to the hostage taking. Ironically, that option is favoured by the United States, which does not have a single soldier on the ground and which said recently that it would never allow a United States soldier to set foot on Bosnian soil.

However, in answer to a question at the NAA, the Assistant Secretary Holbrooke said that the United States would contribute half the troops in order to facilitate a withdrawal from Bosnia if it proved necessary. We cannot evacuate our troops on the ground in Bosnia by aircraft carrier, no matter how sophisticated or large it may be. We must ask who we would bomb. I think that air strikes have been exposed as a flawed tactic.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) who said that there are blue berets in the air dropping bombs while blue berets on the ground are trying to keep the peace and deliver aid. Those two objectives are incompatible. I believe that air strikes would lead to an increase in hostage taking. It is an impossible strategy and I hope that the Government have enough sense to ignore any advice in its favour.

The second option would be to concentrate all our efforts on trying to isolate the problem and contain it within Bosnia so that it does not spill over into other countries. That containment strategy is being argued tonight, and I have heard it before. It could include withdrawal of peacekeeping if it becomes impossible to deliver aid, although I am not sure how we could manage containment from outside.

The third option, and the one that I favour, is to try to maintain the status quo, difficult as that might be. We have to face the truth, uncomfortable as it might be, that the belligerents in the conflict are not yet ready for peace and there still appears to be bloodlust. The rest of us feel helpless and frustrated, especially our troops on the ground.

Experience teaches us that there are limits to external intervention in civil wars. I also believe that we have become involved in a civil war and that making paper threats has helped us lose credibility.

As many of our military commanders have told us, we should ignore those groups that encourage us to take sides. That is always dangerous. One Opposition Member referred to knowing which side to support; I am on the side of peace in the Balkans and that must be paramount. To be sucked into taking sides would be disastrous and would lead us into another Vietnam. That is why the United States does not want to commit any troops on the ground. The Americans have had their fingers burnt and realise that such a move would be disastrous.

I should make a couple of points about the Russians. If we are serious about peace in the Balkans, we cannot exclude them as we did in the bombing. They did not know of the plans to bomb, yet they constantly warned us about the consequences of such action. This weekend, the Russian delegate told us that it was fairly well-established that the recent breakdown of peace in Bosnia was brought about by Bosnian Government forces taking the first pot shot at a French soldier and that was followed by retaliation.

Obviously, I accept that the greatest brutality has been on the side of the Serbs. They have had the most weapons and have been the most organised militarily, but there have been atrocities on both sides. In civil war, barbarism is the name of the game. It is the most appalling war and it is happening in Bosnia.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) was shadow Foreign Secretary, he told us that senior members of the Bosnian Government had made it clear to him that they thought they could win the war. At that time, they were not interested in talking about peace.

The United Nations and NATO should not look for one guilty party and we must not allow the media to persuade us into reckless action. Russia can play an important part in exerting pressure on the Serbs and the Russians must be consulted. We have been absolutely crazy to exclude them.

I end on a point that has already been made. At present, the House has an overriding duty to rescue our troops as we sent them there. I do not want the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Defence to tell me how they plan to do that. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, we have to be totally united and have a single purpose. We want their safety.

On the wider question of extending our mandate and taking sides in a civil war, we need firmer assurances than we have had so far. I am sure that the Opposition will agree with that because we would never ask the young men and women who volunteer to serve our country in a defensive capacity to be cannon fodder in a Balkan conflict which will be resolved only when the present antagonists want to resolve it. Our role has to be to facilitate peace and to continue trying to provide humanitarian aid.

8.33 pm
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Our right hon. Friends were right to take the difficult and awesome decision to send reinforcements into Bosnia following recent events. They will provide British forces under the United Nations with support and protection in carrying out their role and will empower them to be flexible. We have to choose between maintaining the policy of containment and humanitarian support and withdrawal.

The House should reflect carefully before taking that decision, bearing in mind that we remain a great power and that our actions will have consequences. We are a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations, a leading nation in the European Union and NATO and a worldwide player in United Nations peacekeeping. Therefore, what we do is of considerable significance.

Would we really withdraw our troops from Bosnia? Are we really prepared to face the scenes of panic and mass slaughter which would be shown on our televisions night after night, with Kate Adie drawing attention to all the blood and gore? There would be massive public revulsion and people would ask Parliament, "What do you plan to do about it?". There would be a complete swing in British public opinion were people to see the slaughter that would follow a withdrawal.

Matters are not that simple. We and the French may withdraw, but our troops make up not even a quarter of UNPROFOR. Would the Muslim United Nations troops abandon their co-religionists? We have to consider the two Pakistani battalions at Vares and Banovici, the Bangladeshi battalion at Bihac, the Malaysian battalion at Konjic and Makarska, the Turkish battalion at Zenica and the Jordanians, who have similar numbers of troops to ours in the former Yugoslavia. It is more likely those Muslim nations' battalions would become partisan combatants rather than withdraw as we would.

What pressures would our withdrawal put on the Russian contingent and their pan-orthodox links with the Serbs? We should reflect carefully before we leave a void into which dark forces would race. Iran is already supplying the Bosnian Muslims, and many other Islamic states would become involved.

Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Arab nations, let alone the zealots, not least Libya, would consider themselves under an obligation to their co-religionists. If we were to exacerbate fundamentalism at such a difficult time, we could well reap the results. We should consider the impact on Algeria and other Maghreb countries, and Turkey, which could be dragged backwards from its modern role. All those factors should be taken into account. We should ask ourselves whether we really want Islamic fundamentalism warring in the continent of Europe.

The more likely outcome, however, would be a Serbian short-term victory accompanied by brutality, rape and slaughter, and then what? How long would it be before the Bosnian Serb Republic would merge itself into Greater Serbia? How long would it be before it were joined by the Krajina Serbs from Croatia and what would that do in terms of reigniting the Croatian tinderbox? Would not Belgrade become re-emboldened as the sanctions gripped around her throat were eased, and would not Greater Serbia extrapolate the very lessons that our weakness would reveal?

We have only to examine what is already happening. The two previous autonomous provinces of Yugoslavia and Serbia are already feeling the Serb jackboot. In the Vojvodina, where one quarter of the population is Hungarian, autonomy was scrapped in 1990 and Serbo-Croat was declared the only official language the following year. In Kosovo, where 90 per cent. of the population is Muslim Albanian, autonomy was simultaneously scrapped and repression is increasing.

In the Sandjak on the Serbian-Montenegrin border, which has an 80 per cent. Muslim population, Serb repression is also deepening. Many Muslims from the Sandjak are already fleeing into Bosnia. That is significant. If Bosnia is supposed to be such a dangerous place, what does that say about civil rights and freedoms in the Sandjak?

Perhaps Greater Serbia would acquire an enthusiasm to regain the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. That country, with its volatile mix of Macedonians, Albanians and Serbs, is also coveted by Bulgaria and Greece.

What would Hungary do? Would it tolerate indefinitely the repression by the Serbs of a third of a million Hungarians in Vojvodina? Would Hungary eventually react? That, in turn, could rekindle the interests of Hungary in the substantial minorities that it has in Slovakia where there are 600,000 ethnic Hungarians or Romania where there are 1.6 million ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania.

As we look at the whole issue, the ethnic ripples that could be ignited in Sarajevo go wider and wider. It is trite to say that one of the big conflicts that the continent of ours has suffered this century also started in Sarajevo in 1914. It would be wrong for the House to echo the exasperation of Neville Chamberlain who complained of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. What we need in the House of Commons are cool heads, a wide perspective and wise counsel based on experience, which is what this country has traditionally provided to the world.

8.41 pm
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Three weeks ago in the House I was fortunate enough to speak in the debate on Bosnia. I concluded my remarks by saying: We must recognise that there is a limit to how long we can simply sit ineffectively hoping for something to turn up."—[Official Report, 9 May 1995; Vol. 259, c. 640.] Regrettably, I did not expect that something to be the events of the past week.

Why are we in this mess? According to a report by Martin Walker in The Guardian on 27 May there was a serious bout of arm twisting from the Clinton Administration last week. They were going round world capitals putting pressure on for more and more military action against the Bosnian Serbs. At the same time, there was a report in The Independent that Senator Jesse Helms was quite happy with what President Clinton had been doing because it was essential in terms of doing something. That is the problem and it is a problem that occurs in some of the things that we have heard in the debate. There are times when doing something can make situations worse than calmly sitting and waiting for a more opportune moment in the future. The French Prime Minister Alain Juppé is quoted as saying: Ultimatums and air strikes must be used after reflection and preparation … Last Friday's ultimatum and air strikes were not well prepared and exposed the peacekeepers to thoughtless risks. We must not again carry out this type of operation. Could the Security Council members and the NATO commanders really not have thought through the consequences of their decision for the peacekeepers? If that is so, it is absolutely appalling.

The situation is perhaps a consequence of different views of the world. Those who have participants on the ground view things differently from those who see the conflict on CNN and think that somehow there can be a quick fix intervention to solve the problem so that they can move on to another problem in the afternoon.

I regret that it is not just CNN. I was in a debate this afternoon on CNN with an American congressman. He argued that British and French forces in Bosnia were an impediment to a solution and that they were standing in the way of the tough action required. He was completely against any deployment of United States ground forces but he was in favour of lifting the arms embargo and of air strikes. That was an eight-term Republican congressman from New Jersey. It worries me that we have a United States congress dominated by such views. Clearly, they are thinking about the world without taking account of the realities.

There has been mention in the debate that the United States might, perhaps, provide half of the 50,000 troops that might be required should there be a withdrawal. I say, "Don't hold your breath." I do not believe that President Clinton is capable of getting that through the American Congress. If they are not prepared to put people in at a time like this, I suspect that they would not be prepared to put them in anything like the numbers required for a withdrawal.

I am also conscious of the divisions in the statements that are coming from other quarters. There are clearly differences within the coalition. There are differences between the United States and Europe and there are differences with the Russians. There are potential differences with the Islamic world and we know that if we are to achieve a negotiated settlement, it needs the agreement of the Bosnian Government, the Bosnian Croats, the Bosnian Serbs, and Mr. Abdic's forces as well as the Governments of Croatia and Serbia and, presumably, the other successor states to former Yugoslavia.

I have great worries that we are all being used in different ways by people who are very good at pushing their own propaganda and using their own ploys to try to get us in on their side. Mr. Ejup Ganic, the Vice-President of Bosnia, said that there must be massive intervention by the west to solve the problem.

There is a belief in the Bosnian Government that somehow the cavalry will come over the hill. Therefore, the ceasefire that was negotiated by Jimmy Carter was not to be continued. On the other hand, we have this appalling and outrageous behaviour by the Bosnian Serbs.

How do we get out of this mess? First, we must recognise that there is no easy and quick fix. Secondly, we must face up to the fact that there may not be the possibility of any solution in the foreseeable future. Thirdly, we must recognise that if that is the case, we may have to face some harsh realities. There may come a point at which the humanitarian operation becomes impossible.

If that is the case, the three options that we have currently will be reduced to two. I do not want that. I believe in humanitarian intervention by the United Nations and I believe in internationalism and support for people who are suffering from starvation and oppression. However, I do not believe in being used and manipulated to fight somebody else's war, whether it is being done from across the Atlantic or from our own continent. Therefore, we should not allow the justifiable increase in our forces going in to provide protection for our own peacekeepers to become an incremental escalation towards a longer-term, indefinite involvement.

I am prepared, with some reservations, to support the actions that have been taken in the past few days. However, I want to make it clear that it is not just Conservative Members who have concerns about this matter. I have my concerns about where this is leading. It is important that the House should express the view that is shared by many people out there. They want to know why this is happening and where it will lead.

We did not get a satisfactory clarification from the Prime Minister and I do not expect to get one from the Secretary of State for Defence. Nevertheless, these questions warrant answers. If we return to this subject in a month's time and are asked to approve the sending of another few thousand troops, those questions will have to be put even more strongly than they have been put today.

8.50 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

I listened to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) with much interest. I thought that his approach to the problem and his reaction to the unfortunate events of the last few days showed a characteristic Labour party approach—a great deal of visceral anti-Americanism and a considerable lack of decisiveness about what we should do in difficult circumstances.

I want to make several points in the 10 minutes available to me, so I shall try to be as succinct as possible. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke today with great resolution and I believe that he will have the overwhelming majority of the country behind him. It is out of the question for this country to yield to threats or to give in to blackmail. We have rarely done so in more than 1,000 years of history. On the rare and shameful occasions that we have, from the Danegeld to Hitler in the 1930s, we have always come to regret it. It is much more expensive to rebuild a country's credibility once it has been damaged than it is to maintain a resolute position in the first place.

But we must not prevaricate. It is no good saying that we will not give in to threats and blackmail, but then saying that in the light of the hostage taking we may have to bring forward a withdrawal from Bosnia or give some assurances about no air strikes. Either of those suggestions immediately offers some reward to the Bosnian Serbs for their bad behaviour. The object of our policy must be the exact reverse—to ensure that the Bosnian Serbs come to regret and to regard as a complete mistake the dastardly action that they have taken against our troops during the past few days.

My second point is that consistent with that overall national objective we must get our hostages out, and by whatever mixture of military means, subterfuge and diplomacy that we can devise. I have every confidence in the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, although obviously we must not go into any details today about what they may be considering. However, I want to make a point about diplomacy, a word that has been used on many occasions this evening. Diplomacy is a means to an end; it is a mechanism for enabling parties who desire or have a need for an agreement to reach one. But unless the parties have such a desire or need, diplomacy will be a useless weapon. It cannot be used in a vacuum. Sometimes it is necessary to change the facts of the situation—the balance of forces—to generate that need for an agreement.

Thirdly, some tactical lessons need to be learnt from the taking of the hostages. A number of hon. Members, including myself, were perplexed by the fact that our commanders on the spot, who knew that an air strike was in prospect—indeed, they had called for air strikes—and who knew that the Bosnian Serbs had a history of taking hostages, nevertheless did not deploy the forces available to them in defensible numbers in defensible positions. There may be good reasons for that. Perhaps they were hamstrung by instructions from the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General.

In the current position, it would not be helpful to have immediate answers to the obvious questions that arise, but in due course we will need to know exactly why such decisions were taken on deployment. I hope that whatever lessons need to be learnt will be learnt rapidly by those who are responsible for our troops.

There is a fourth conclusion to be drawn from the experiences of the past week, which is that Great Britain needs now, and will continue to need, professional, effective, flexible defence forces. We never know from where the threat will come. Who could have predicted the taking of hostages a few weeks or months ago? However, the Government have been able rapidly to mobilise 6,000 men—an armoured brigade—and are prepared to deploy them rapidly in the former Yugoslavia.

Quite simply, we would not have such a flexible range of responsive capabilities, we would not have those extremely well-trained and mobile troops, if we had adopted the defence policies urged on the Government by the two major Opposition parties over the past 15 years.

A number of hon. Members from those parties have made robust statements in the Chamber today and I welcome that unreservedly. However, I hope that they will have the honesty, at least in their private thoughts if not in their public statements, to acknowledge first, that those robust statements are empty and meaningless unless effective defence forces are at the disposal of the Government, and secondly, that the defence policies that their parties have urged on this House would have proved disastrous and would have deprived us of that necessary capability.

Finally, there is a longer-term strategic conclusion to be drawn. The point has already been made that one of the salient features of the present position is that we have engaged our forces in Bosnia, as have the French, whereas we have not been prepared to engage them in humanitarian, peacekeeping or peacemaking operations further afield. We have rightly not deployed our forces in Somalia, Angola, Azerbaijan, Cambodia or all the other places where human beings have been and are being massacred in deplorable circumstances. The reason for that is quite clear—we have a special interest in and a special responsibility for the maintenance of stability on our continent of Europe and on the frontiers of the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance.

We are not the world's policemen. We cannot take upon ourselves responsibility for maintaining order or for supervising the distribution of humanitarian relief across the globe. It is sad, but realistically we cannot do that. However, we can and must take responsibility for stability in our own zone. We and our French allies—and I pay tribute to them—have shouldered that responsibility. We have done so in the Gulf and we are doing so now in Bosnia. We have an interest in doing that. Over the years, the Americans have made it clear that they have a lesser interest because geopolitically they are much further removed from Bosnia. Nevertheless, we must recognise that the interest that we and the French have is fully shared, or ought to be, by our allies in the European Union—the Germans, the Italians, the Spaniards, the Dutch, the Finns and other smaller countries.

There is a very anomalous aspect in the present situation because the fact is that Britain and France have been shouldering a substantial burden in the Gulf, and now in Bosnia, not just in the interests of the stability of our zone and of our own countries but equally in the interests of the other European members of the Atlantic alliance and the other members of the European Union.

The other members of the European Union, one might say, have been free riding. They have been gaining the full benefit that has been secured by the gallantry, courage and sacrifices of our troops and by the financial costs that Britain and France have incurred. That situation is not viable, sensible, or reasonable and it cannot be allowed to continue into the longer term future.

It is necessary that the European Union should take seriously the commitment into which it entered in the Maastricht treaty to develop effective common foreign, security and defence policies. That is necessary in the interests of world peace because our influence on events will be much greater if policy is co-ordinated and focused—indeed, we might, arguably, have been able to avoid conflict in Yugoslavia had it been.

And if we need to engage in military action, it is necessary that the costs are spread through the Union as a whole, just as the benefits are. I hope that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary will take advantage of the lessons that can be learned from Bosnia to press forward the implementation of the foreign, security and defence aspects of the Maastricht treaty.

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

There is one issue on which the House is united: the taking of hostages was a wrongful and sinful act by General Mladic and Mr. Karadzic. To say the least, it was very bad public relations on the part of the Bosnian Serbs.

We have to ask what led to that action. The answer was given by the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), when he pointed out that it would not have happened without the air strikes. Without those air strikes, we would not have sat here all afternoon and evening debating the problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Although I support sending troops to safeguard our people out there and to restore the hostages to freedom, I think that 6,000 is rather a lot and I do not believe that the action which is being taken now, as with many actions that have involved the use of force in the past, is anything other than short-termism in military terms. There is a complete lack of political strategy.

Some hon. Members have argued about whether this is a civil war. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) argued that it was not a civil war on the ground that there is a Government universally recognised throughout the world in Sarajevo. In 1642, we had a Government who were universally recognised throughout the world; that did not stop us having a civil war. In the United States in 1861, they had a Government who were recognised by everyone; that did not stop them having a civil war.

Civil wars arise when one part of a country refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the Government who are installed at the time. That is precisely what has happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For all sorts of reasons, some of them historical, the Serbs do not recognise the Government in Sarajevo.

We should ask ourselves—surely the question should have been asked before—what we would do if we were in the position of Serbs living in Bosnia, or Krajina for that matter, when air strikes are launched. Their immediate reaction is that they are not the only ones fighting the civil war. After all, only a few weeks ago, 2,000 Serbs were driven out of their homes in western Slavonia and many Serbs were massacred by Croatian forces. Nobody contemplates sanctions against Croatia, let alone the use of air strikes.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made a very important point, which I hope will be answered, when he suggested that the safe havens should be demilitarised because many of the attacks which have been made, as general after general has said, were launched from inside the safe havens by Muslim forces. Even if the retaliation of the Serbs has sometimes been inordinate, Tuzla and Sarajevo have certainly been used as bases by Muslim forces to break ceasefire after ceasefire. Do we talk about air strikes against the Muslims? Of course we do not.

I am not suggesting that air strikes are justified in any event, but I am pointing out that if we talk about being even-handed, as the Prime Minister still does, we must remember that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. To act in any other way while putting an extra 6,000 of our troops into Bosnia-Herzegovina is to ensure the inevitability of their being sucked into a civil war on one side against the other. I do not believe that I could support that approach. It is a purely military strategy and there is a complete lack of political strategy.

Any political strategy must take two further factors into account. First, what will be the impact on Serbia itself? Some people are keen to attack President Milosevic, but they should consider the fact that, if we get embroiled in a civil war, it may not be Milosevic with whom we are dealing but Arkan or Seselj or some more extreme fascist elements.

Secondly, the impact on Russia has been mentioned by several hon. Members. Although it is the Government's policy to try to expand the frontiers of NATO—wrongly, in my view—we are ignoring the Russians in the essential matter of future political action in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russia, one of the contact group's members, is being wholly ignored when it comes to political or military action.

I shall find it very difficult to support the Government; indeed, until I see a political strategy that brings even-handedness back to our approach, I shall not be able to do so.

9.6 pm

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

One thing of which I am absolutely certain is that the country will applaud our Prime Minister for his decisiveness, clarity of mind and sense of purpose in making the important decision to send reinforcements to Bosnia. The country was waiting for decisive action and leadership, and they got it. We needed to be given a sober warning that he feared that, if we did not take decisive action and uphold the authority of the United Nations, a major war in Europe could follow. These are worrying moments, and it is right for us to be deeply concerned.

It is also appropriate and right that the Prime Minister should make it a priority to get the hostages released. However, we have to go a little further: it is important not only to take firm, decisive action to show that the authority of the United Nations cannot be sneered at or swept aside, but to consider what we can do to bring the Bosnian Serbs to sanity. We have to be firm with them, for I have always felt that Karadzic was a bully, a tyrant and a coward. Only cowards attack innocent citizens as he does.

It is significant that there is now evidence from a variety of sources that Karadzic is losing support among his own people. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) mentioned a document that shows that only 50 per cent. of his people support Karadzic's endeavours. I, too, have had reports that he is losing backing and that people in his country are seeking peace. It is important to take such divisions into account and to emphasise the importance of diplomacy. Diplomacy must be very carefully balanced. On one hand, we have to be firm militarily; we must not allow the Serbs to get away with their tyranny. On the other hand, if we bunker them too hard into a tight corner, I believe, knowing the Serbian personality as I do, that we will have taken a step backwards.

The key to peace lies in Belgrade. At least Milosevic has condemned the taking of those hostages and has accepted the contact group's peace plan. The next stage is to consider how to get him to recognise Bosnia. Recognising Bosnia is a possibility for Milosevic, because it is in his interests. Isolating Karadzic would help Milosevic, bearing in mind that Karadzic has eyes on the presidency in the former Yugoslavia. Therefore we must help Milosevic to facilitate a diplomatic outcome. A face-saving formula may be required, but one thing is for sure: unless we put as much effort into our diplomatic initiatives as we put into our military initiatives, we shall not obtain the peace in Europe that we desperately require.

9.10 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

This has been an excellent debate and it has certainly justified the decision of the Government and Madam Speaker to recall Parliament. In all, 35 right hon. and hon. Members will have spoken in the debate, which has been of a very high standard and, naturally, of very high passion. Two sides—indeed, three sides if that is possible—of the argument have been presented. Some hon. Members felt that enough had not been done. My hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) and for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) made that point forcefully. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) shared the same point of view. They have long made their points of view very clear and we all know and appreciate the depth of their feelings on this issue.

Equally, members of all parties have said that we should not be involved, we should not take sides and a war-like posture should not be adopted. The Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), and the hon. Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell) spelled out very clearly why they felt that. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) expressed very clearly their reasons why they felt that it was not in Britain's interests to become involved.

We heard, too, a wealth of experience. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) talked about taking a convoy across the area. The hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) told us of his experience in the North Atlantic Assembly and with European parliamentarians. Other hon. Members merely put their own views. I thought that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) was especially balanced, incisive and based on common sense, which we could do with by the bucketful in Bosnia. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) gave an analytical response. My hon. Friends the Members for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen), for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and, indeed, all hon. Members who have spoken put forward points of view that will be helpful to the Government and to the Secretary of State for Defence in trying to achieve a policy that is acceptable to the House. It is very important—if it is at all possible— that we maintain a consensus across the Chamber.

The Prime Minister set out the reasons why he felt that it was necessary to send British reinforcements. He took time to explain them and to try to take the House with him. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made a comprehensive and perceptive speech. Above all, it was a balanced speech which actually managed to avoid the polarisation to which this issue, I am afraid, all too easily lends itself. His analysis, in a sense, served to emphasise that there is no easy solution to this problem. We all know that that is why we must redouble our efforts to try to bring some peace to Bosnia.

That is why we state without hesitation that we are not looking for the withdrawal of British troops. In fact, the barbaric action of the Bosnian Serbs in seizing hostages has once again reunited the House. Almost every Member has spelt that point out and shared that view. It is because of that barbaric action that the United Nations effort in Bosnia has been brought to crisis point yet again.

That crisis must be used for two primary purposes, one immediate and the other longer term. The first objective, one on which I believe there is complete consensus, is a matter of the greatest urgency—the release of the hostages. Of course we shall not probe the Secretary of State for Defence or the Foreign Secretary on that point; we know that they will be using all their best endeavours to ensure that release.

The Opposition believe that the perpetrators of the outrage must be brought to book and charged with war crimes. We have said that repeatedly, and there is no better time than now to press the demand. The behaviour of the Bosnian Serbs has been unforgivable; they have really crossed the rubicon this time. We all hope and pray that the captives will soon be released unharmed—a point made forcefully by the Members from Wales who have spoken on behalf of their constituents. But of course any response must be calculated and balanced. It must not be based purely on anger or revenge, because those motives will not serve us well.

We support and appreciate the Government's speedy reaction in announcing the reinforcements of further British troops. That action was correct, and we recognise that after such haste any decision will need further working out. Some of the answers may not be readily apparent, and we would not expect the Government to provide us with precise details today. However, 72 hours after the initial decision it is important for the Secretary of State to attempt to end some of the confusion and to clarify the situation.

In particular, if we are to put the lives of our young men and women at risk we have the right to expect the Secretary of State to announce the changed nature of the mission. There seems to have been confusion over the past mandate, and as we look towards a changed mandate it is important that the troops whom we are sending to Bosnia are aware of what the new mission is.

That is something that the military always ask me. If they are critical at all—and they rarely are in Bosnia—I think that sometimes, in their heart of hearts, they are a little unsure of what their precise mission is. We shall be rather unhappy if the Secretary of State cannot be a little more forthcoming about what he expects of the troops whom we are sending out there. As he knows, the nature of the troops and the armaments that we are sending add a potential for a great escalation of the situation in Bosnia.

We, and the whole House, want to be certain that the Government have a clearly worked-out strategy. If there has been an undertone running through the debate among certain Members, it has been the fear that we shall be sucked into a quagmire in Bosnia. That could easily happen, but it does not need to happen. That, however, will depend on the Government adopting a strategic approach. We should certainly like to know how they see this aspect of the problem.

I have gone on at some length about this point because I think it is important. It is perhaps worth reflecting on the history of why our troops were first sent to Bosnia and why we have had almost to treble their numbers now. They were, of course, originally sent out to escort the humanitarian convoys—to get the food and medicine through. As time went on, we found that more was needed. The second aspect of their mission then became clear, with the establishment of the safe havens. By definition, safe havens have to be safe. We now know that they are not really safe, because not enough nations were prepared to supply enough troops to make them so.

I was in Gorazde immediately before it was declared a safe area, although in effect it already was one. It was manned, ostensibly, by a Nordic battalion, consisting of a Nordic commander, a Kenyan, a Dutch deputy and seven other ranks—10 soldiers in all to look after an area of 250 sq km.

It is worth reminding ourselves when we talk about Europe and NATO that not only western Europe is involved. We should not forget the Bangladeshis, the Kenyans or the New Zealanders serving in Bosnia. Of course our own troops must be our first priority and interest in the context of military action and changing the mandate, but we must not forget that the United Nations has gone to a great deal of expense and spent a great deal of time in ensuring that some of these troops are adequately kitted out. Some time ago, there were reports of Bangladeshi troops in the Bihac enclave with one rifle between four men. That puts the difficult task of changing the mandate in context.

Several of my right hon. and hon. Friends have tried today to draw out the Secretary of State on the point to which I shall come next. Several countries that belonged to the former Warsaw pact have been active, too: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. A number of their troops have been taken hostage as well, which shows how much conditions have changed.

I wish to press the Secretary of State on the safe havens. There have been well-founded reports to the effect that the whole idea is to be abandoned. There are also well-founded reports that the Secretary-General of the United Nations believes that the three eastern safe havens, Zepa, Srebrenica and Gorazde, cannot be sustained and may have to be abandoned. That changes the nature of the game, but we understand why the Secretary-General thinks it necessary.

When the safe havens were created in 1993, the Secretary-General asked the Security Council for 34,000 additional troops. In the end, he had to be satisfied with 7,500, and not even all of them were delivered. So he has had an impossible task. As the Secretary of State for Defence knows, the Royal Welch Fusiliers in Gorazde were not having an easy time of it even before the kidnappings. They have been short of water and supplies and their lives have been pretty intolerable. We want to know what efforts the Government are making at the United Nations—we are, after all, a permanent member of the Security Council—to deal with that problem. Before I leave the subject of safe havens, I wish to press a point that Labour Members have made for two years. When will the safe havens be demilitarised? It is unacceptable for safe havens to be used for military bases, as it upsets the military balance. Action must be taken if the safe havens are to be meaningful.

The change of policy and responsibility in Bosnia has been gradual. The problems of containment have been put at the top of the Ministry of Defence briefing notes, but they were not made explicit previously. I do not quibble with the present policy, because we must try to stop the flames spreading to the rest of the Balkans. But the pre-emptive stationing of troops in Macedonia—for which we have argued for a long time—means that an extra responsibility is placed on the troops.

We must ensure that the troops have a clear mandate and a clear mission, and that they have the facilities that they need to carry out their duties with the minimum of risk to their lives. We may well be adding to the mandate, and it is important that the Secretary of State for Defence brings the House more into his confidence on this issue without supplying any details that might put at risk our troops or make their tasks more difficult.

The other point which concerns us is the issue of command and control. Clearly, the UN has learnt a great deal, and obviously its experience in Bosnia has been unique. We are all learning as we go on. Things have been better since NATO took on a large part of the command structure, but there are basic problems.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield made it clear that it is difficult to have an effective system of unified command and control where the soldiers on the ground who wear the blue helmets are neutral, while at the same time and under an associated command the forces in the air—which are also under the remit of those wearing the blue helmet—are carrying out offensive actions. That problem must be addressed, as it has exacerbated the situation and is certainly responsible for the current hostage situation.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. David Clark

I apologise, but I am short of time. I want to give the Secretary of State time to answer my questions.

That point must be clarified in relation to the deployment of the extra troops we are sending. As I understand it, the first two tranches of new troops will be working in BRITFOR under Brigadier Pringle in the south-west section. That is fairly clear. But will they be used for any other purpose other than supplementing British troops? Will they be used as a rapid reaction force to go to other parts of Bosnia to relieve and help out other troops under UN command?

Has the Secretary of State clarified the status under which the 24 Air Mobile Brigade group will be operating? The brigade is the largest contingent of our troops. We have seen reports that they will not go under the UN flag or wear the blue helmets, but will be attached to the British contingent. Does that mean that General Smith will have dual command? Will he be a double-hatted general? From where will 24 Air Mobile take its orders? Will it be from the UN in New York, or from the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall? I hope that I am not being too specific, but it is important that the House is aware of the problems.

Dr. Spink

The hon. Gentleman asks for too much detail.

Dr. Clark

Perhaps, but I am sure that the Secretary of State for Defence can deal with my questions.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House referred to the Russian position. Earlier this week, the hon. Member for Wealden and I visited Budapest to talk to politicians from the east and from the west. We know of the deep concern felt by the Russians, and we are aware of the intricacies and detail of command and control. We appreciate the complications of NATO-delivered air cover in conjunction with the UN, which becomes doubly difficult when other nations are not part of the NATO command structure.

We know the intricacies, details and routine of the command structure, but when it comes to a country that is a member of the contact group and is a major player—Russia—it makes no sense to cause offence by not at least keeping that country informed when air strikes are to take place. Leaders of the Duma whom I met in Budapest felt aggrieved and were reluctant to help—and we may need Russia's help when it comes to relieving the hostages and perhaps in other respects. Britain must be more sophisticated in developing that part of her policy.

The Labour party has made it clear that talk of withdrawal is not on the table. We would not be prepared to give in to blackmailers and terrorism. That is not an option. However, we came to play a role in Bosnia—in delivering humanitarian aid and dousing the flames—at the request of the UN. Our troops have done that well and honourably. However, as the Secretary of State for Defence knows, the scenario has changed. As Britain has a permanent seat in the Security Council, we wonder whether the Government will return and address the original problem and policy. It was envisaged that when troops were sent to Bosnia, they would not remain there permanently. There is a roulement of British troops every six months. The Government have said that they are not prepared to allow British troops to enter Gorazde once the Royal Welch Fusiliers leave. The Dutch troops have the same problem in Srebrenica; they took over from the Canadians and nobody will relieve them.

If policy is to be effective, we must be able to reassure the public that Bosnia is not—to use a phrase bandied around today—another Vietnam or Afghanistan.

I appreciate the difference, to the extent that we are working for the UN. But if we are talking about a long haul of about 10 years—

Lady Olga Maitland

Not 10 years.

Dr. Clark

Yes. If one talks to military people, that is the length of time that they mention. In that event, we shall need circulation and replacement of national troops. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.

The whole House has paid tribute, rightly, to our troops and to those of other nations, who have acted with great bravery and generosity. We politicians created the war situation and, ironically, have left it to our military to try to maintain the peace. At the end of the day, however, this tragedy will finally be settled around the negotiating table. What we must do, with sending the extra reinforcements, is to try to force, to try to put pressure, to try to bring in as many people as possible to join us, to get the negotiators around the table so that we can finally get a peaceful settlement in Bosnia.

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

We are now approaching the end of what must have been one of the longest debates that the House has experienced for many years. As has been said, some 35 right hon. and hon. Members have contributed to the debate, making speeches of exceptional quality and seriousness, and showing a great commitment.

The fact that the vast majority of hon. Members— indeed, all the parties represented in the House—have welcomed the decision to send extra reinforcements to Bosnia is a matter that I especially welcome, because, as our forces go to the former Yugoslavia, it is of great significance that they know that they go with the near-unanimous endorsement of the House of Commons.

I welcome the fact also that all parties and most hon. Members support the policy that the Government have been pursuing, but am conscious of the fact that a number of hon. Members, with equal seriousness and equal thought, have come to different conclusions. It is right and proper that we should acknowledge that the subject of our involvement in former Yugoslavia is one that is not easy for any hon. Member. It involves ethical issues, practical questions, moral judgments, as well as coming to a view as to the wider strategic interest both of this country and of the western world as a whole.

There has been an understandable concern that the sending of more British troops to Bosnia could have the result of bogging us further down in the Balkan morass; that it could be a step towards our becoming a combatant in that war, and seeking to achieve a military solution. Comparisons with Vietnam have been made, and also with the Falklands and the Gulf war.

Becoming a combatant is not and will not be our policy. Indeed, far from the events of the past week making it more likely, they should have shown all but the most stubborn the limitations of air power when combined with United Nations ground forces who do not have either the mandate or the equipment with which to wage war.

That has come as no surprise to the British Government, to General Rupert Smith or to the other UNPROFOR commanders, who have always stressed the caution that must be applied with regard to the use of air strikes. I hope that the siren voices from Congress and from some in the House will now be stilled.

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Will he comment on the broadcast by President Clinton that the United States is now contemplating—contemplating—sending in ground troops, and on the statement by Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary-General, that, if increased forces are sent in, they should be under national command, because these statements on the "Nine O'clock News" really do transform the situation? I know that the Government will know about them, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State will incorporate that in his speech.

Mr. Rifkind

The right hon. Gentleman—and, I am sure, the House as a whole—will wish to study carefully what President Clinton has said today. I understand that he has indicated that there could be circumstances in which he would consider favourably the temporary deployment of US ground forces to help with a redeployment of forces within Bosnia. Naturally, we would wish to study carefully the precise implications of that, and I do not propose to comment on that matter further at this stage.

A recognition that the United Nations is not going to wage war does not leave withdrawal as the only alternative. There is much that has been done and which we can still do to reduce the suffering in Bosnia, to prevent the spread of the war throughout the Balkans and to further the prospects of a political settlement.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell) asked why we were in Bosnia, and why different arguments applied to Bosnia than to Angola, Cambodia or other parts of the world. I have to make two responses to him. First, to some extent, he is incorrect. At this very moment, British forces are in Angola helping in a humanitarian way. They have been in Rwanda and Cambodia and in a number of other countries around the world. I accept that we cannot seek to do all that we might in theory wish to do, but perhaps my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who have spoken in a similar way should reflect on the remark that Edmund Burke once made: no one makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he, himself, can only do a little. I ask those who call for the withdrawal of our forces the following questions. Is Britain the sort of country that can stand and watch but do nothing while tens of thousands are being slaughtered in a not so far away country of which we now know quite a lot?

Should Britain be unwilling to play a part, despite its unrivalled experience in peacekeeping, in trying to contain, and in due course end, a European conflict that could destabilise a significant part of our continent for years to come?

Is it being suggested that British troops could withdraw from Bosnia even if French, Dutch, Canadian and other forces stay? Would that be either honourable or in our national interest? Of course peacekeeping in Bosnia is a thankless, dangerous and depressing experience, but that does not make it any less necessary. We have been more cautious than most—less prone to rhetoric as a substitute for policy, and more realistic as to what can be achieved. That is why we have maintained broad support, both in the House and in the country as a whole.

We share many of the reservations and concerns that have been expressed during this debate—I do not doubt that for a moment—and we do not dismiss those concerns. But ultimately this country will want to do its duty and to play its part in international efforts to end the bloodshed and restore stability.

Against that background, may I briefly report to the House where we stand with regard to the deployment of certain of the United Kingdom forces about which the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) specifically asked me.

Yesterday, the first element of 19 Field Regiment, with its 105 mm light guns, left RAF Lyneham for Split in Croatia by C130 Hercules aircraft. It will continue to deploy by air to Split over the next week. A chartered ro-ro ferry will leave Emden in Germany on 6 June with 31 Armoured Engineer Squadron and elements of 21 Engineer Regiment.

Then, on 8 June, the ship will collect from Marchwood military port combat service support elements and logistics elements of the Household Cavalry Regiment. It should arrive in Split on 17 June. Signals personnel and the two additional Lynx helicopters of 9 Regiment Army Air Corps will leave by air over the next few days.

Why are we sending those initial units—the artillery and the armoured engineers? The reinforcement package includes those elements. They provide essential capabilities to enhance the protection of UNPROFOR and increase the range of options open to UN commanders to respond robustly against the possibility of UN troops having to defend themselves when trying to carry out UNPROFOR's mission in a more hostile environment.

Those assests could be used to counter attacks by parties to the conflict; to ensure that vital aid or resupply routes can be kept open; and to safeguard essential engineer projects such as route maintenance, bridge building or mine-clearing operations. The artillery, for example, will provide an essential defence against artillery and mortar attacks while our forces are carrying out their UN tasks.

The inclusion of artillery and armoured engineer capabilities constitutes an important balancing of the force: as we have already seen, UNPROFOR checkpoints and observation points have in the past been subject to hostile action. Should the need arise, these robust assets will enable commanders to counter such attacks with an all-arms capability.

Mr. Dalyell

May we just be clear about this? Are the armoured units and artillery under British control or United Nations control? And are the incoming American forces under Washington control or UN control?

Mr. Rifkind

It is premature, to say the least, for the hon. Gentleman to refer to incoming American forces, so I will not try to respond to that point. I am happy to respond on the question of United Kingdom forces, however.

The artillery and armoured regiments that are going in at this moment will be blue helmet and under General Rupert Smith as part of the UNPROFOR force. The hon. Member for South Shields and the Leader of the Opposition asked about 24 Air Mobile Brigade. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered that question when he said that that would come under General Rupert Smith and the UNPROFOR force.

Let me expand on that if I may. We have said that the 5,000-strong force comprising 24 Air Mobile, when it arrives in Bosnia, will be there primarily to protect United Kingdom forces. Consistent with that, however, we are willing to see it available for the protection of UNPROFOR as a whole, because anything that protects that force is relevant to our national interest. The force will be commanded by General Rupert Smith; its members will wear blue berets and blue helmets. That meets our requirements.

To consider the alternative would have many disadvantages. While it would theoretically be possible for the force to come under national control rather than that of General Rupert Smith, it would mean our having two groups of British soldiers in Bosnia at the same time—a national element and an UNPROFOR element. That would create considerable inconvenience, confusion and possible danger. We are all conscious of the difficulties that have arisen as a result of the dual key system between air and ground; the last thing we want, if it can be avoided, is a comparable problem on the ground. We are confident that the matter can be dealt with satisfactorily.

Dr. David Clark

May I clarify that? Would 24 Air Mobile Brigade be in exactly the same position—in terms of command and control—as all other British troops in the area, or does the Secretary of State's statement that the brigade is there primarily to protect British troops mean that there is an extra command structure involving the British general?

Mr. Rifkind

It does not mean that there is any extra command structure. It means what it says—that, in offering these forces to the United Nations, we have indicated that we are offering them on the basis that their primary role will be to enhance the protection of the British forces that are part of UNPROFOR. So far as that objective is not compromised, however, they are also available to be used for other tasks, particularly other protection tasks. That is not a unique position, and it is one that I am confident to recommend.

Sir Peter Tapsell

When General Rupert Smith's tour of duty ends, if his successor is not British, will a foreign United Nations commander then command his new troops?

Mr. Rifkind

Naturally, whoever is the commander of the UN forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina will have the same duties and responsibilities as General Rupert Smith has now. Of course, General Smith is himself answerable to the French general, General Janvier, who has overall command over the former Yugoslavia. There is no particular point of principle here.

Let me give the House some information that has not been mentioned so far. An important development is now taking place in the force in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a result of an initiative by General Rupert Smith. Following the serious developments over the weekend and at the instigation of General Smith, elements of UNPROFOR—the existing force—will be reorganised to provide a theatre reserve force.

That force will be a mobile reaction force capable of responding to a range of requirements, from protecting UNPROFOR units to a reserve capability that could be deployed at very short notice within theatre, and is robustly equipped to counter potential attacks on UNPROFOR personnel if that became necessary in a more hostile environment.

The theatre reserve force has been placed under the command of Brigadier Pringle, commander of the British contingent and UN commander of Bosnia's sector south-west. It is likely to comprise some of the United Kingdom assets in the reinforcement package—for example, the artillery batteries and the armoured engineer squadron—together with some elements already in theatre, and forces made available by other troop-contributing nations such as the Canadians or the New Zealanders, either from within theatre or as new reinforcements.

The main elements of the reserve force would include an armoured infantry battalion group incorporating three companies of Warrior vehicles from the 1st Battalion the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, Scimitars of the British Cavalry Battalion already in theatre, and some Lynx helicopters which we had previously offered to the United Nations in support of the now-expired cessation of hostilities agreement.

I was pleased to hear that today the Netherlands has indicated its willingness to contribute to the British forces as part of the new theatre reserve force, while the Dutch Government have mentioned a reinforced company of marines and additional military means. That is something that we welcome very warmly.

The creation of a theatre reserve force is a very important initiative. Last night on television, General Lewis Mackenzie, the former Canadian commander in Bosnia, said: every United Nations commander in the 38 missions from 1956 on has wanted a reserve and has never got one. If this gives General Smith a reserve for his entire contingent in Bosnia, I'm sure he'll be delighted. It is an important initiative, and we are very pleased that the United Kingdom will be intimately involved in the matter.

Mr. Home Robertson

I am sure that the whole House welcomes the enhancement of UNPROFOR's ability to protect itself. Will the additional firepower also be available to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid? For example, when aid convoys come under fire from the Serbs or someone else, will UNPROFOR be able to open fire on whoever is responsible for the attack?

Mr. Rifkind

Its precise role will be for the UNPROFOR commander to determine, but I have no doubt from what has been said already that he would see part of its role as giving added protection, for example, to a convoy that may be threatened or subject to an assault from hostile forces. General Smith has the flexibility to use the force as a reserve force within Bosnia-Herzegovina to be deployed at his discretion, consistent with the overall terms of the mandate under which he operates.

There has been considerable comment about the achievements of UNPROFOR within Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past three years. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) both said that it was inappropriate to refer to the United Nations force as "peacekeepers" because there is "no peace to keep"—I think that is the phrase that they used. I understand why they have made those observations, but I think that that is an unfair and inaccurate description.

It is true that, in parts of Sarajevo, Bihac and Gorazde, the fighting and conflict is such that it is very difficult to say that the peace is being kept. However, they are only small parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In a very large part of Bosnia—particularly central Bosnia, which is where the United Kingdom forces are most concentrated—the peace is being kept, and it has been increasingly well kept for the past 18 months.

The right hon. Member for Yeovil has been to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and if he recollects his visits during that period, I am sure that he will be the first to acknowledge that, a year and a half ago, the Croat and Muslim forces were at each other's throats. It was impossible to travel around central Bosnia without going through dozens of checkpoints. In towns such as Gorni Vakuf, there was severe bloodshed.

If the right hon. Gentleman travels to Bosnia today, he will find that UNPROFOR forces are not under threat. They may travel around without their armoured vehicles and, to a very large extent, they have helped to restore some semblance of normality to a large part of the country.

Mr. Ashdown

What the right hon. and learned Gentleman says is entirely true. However, I did not make the comments that he has attributed to me. I did not mention in my speech that there was no peace in certain areas. I said that the present mandate and terms of engagement under which our forces have been operating is manifestly bust. It needs to be reconsidered, and, at the very least, some priority should be established as to the operation of the twin mandates for humanitarian aid and for more aggressive action.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that case? The Prime Minister has used the word "consolidation" in the past two or three days. I do not disagree that some consolidation may be necessary. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House whether that consolidation will mean any change of policy in respect of the safe havens of Gorazde, Zepa and Srebrenica?

Mr. Rifkind

Of course our immediate task is to release the hostages, and much has been said about that subject, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Consistent with that objective, we have three priorities.

First, we must ensure the enhanced protection of British forces and of the whole UNPROFOR force. I have explained the various ways in which that is being taken forward substantially. Secondly, in the statement issued by the British Government on Sunday night, we said that we believed that it was appropriate to propose to our friends and allies some concentration of United Nations forces within Bosnia.

There is no doubt that, with the present scale of United Nations facilities, it is extremely difficult for them to carry out the many tasks that are currently expected of them. No criticism can be made of the United Kingdom; we are one of the largest contributors in Bosnia, but the overall size of the force is difficult to reconcile with the many demands it faces.

For example, it is well worth remembering the inevitable isolation of the United Nations military observers, given the work they have been asked to do. There are a total of 678 UNMOs currently deployed throughout the country. They act as the eyes and ears of the United Nations on the ground. They are specifically responsible for reporting on the state of day-to-day relationship between the parties to the conflict.

We have always been aware, as has UNPROFOR, that military observers in Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Croat or Bosnian Government territory inevitably have been at some risk. They have been subject to harassment, obstruction and humiliation. What has become qualitatively different in the past week is that some of them have now been taken hostage and used as human shields. That degree of risk is unacceptable. We cannot expect individual military observers to be in Bosnia if that is the fate that awaits them; therefore, there may be a need at least to bring them into central Bosnia so that their personal security can be enhanced.

Mr. Ashdown

I am afraid that the Secretary of State has not answered my question. Does consolidation mean a change of policy in the three safe havens that are isolated from Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Mr. Rifkind

I am dealing first with the United Nations military observers. Another isolated part of the structure is the three safe havens: Gorazde, Zepa and Srebrenica. That will be for the United Nations to decide. We certainly believe that it is appropriate to examine those three safe havens to see whether the policy is tenable and to assess the implications of a possible change of policy. We have reached no judgment or conclusion on that, but it is important that the matter should be addressed. I understand that today the United Nations Secretary-General indicated that it was appropriate to address those matters.

We have all been critical of the United Nations trying to do more than it is capable of doing with the mandate and the forces provided to it. If that is our judgment, if countries are unable to provide additional forces to the extent that would be required, we have a duty to address the issues honestly and frankly and prepare to work out what the implications would be.

With regard to the individuals who have been taken hostage, it is very important to realise the extent to which the Bosnian Serbs acted in a way which is, in effect, akin to terrorism. They cannot say, as they have claimed, that the hostages are prisoners of war, as if that somehow makes it acceptable. Apart from anything else, prisoners of war are entitled to the benefit of the Geneva convention, which would prevent them from being used in exactly the way in which they are being used now, so Mr. Karadzic and General Mladic are in a totally indefensible position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) mentioned the rules of engagements, and asked whether we are satisfied about their robustness. As he is aware, from the very beginning of our forces' presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we have told them that the right to self-defence is an absolute entitlement, and they must respond in the way that is judged appropriate to ensure their physical safety.

The rules of engagement, the terms of which we do not comment on publicly, are very robust. Although we shall always look to see whether some change is needed to reflect any change in the mandate or the circumstances, we do not believe that there is any problem with regard to their robustness to entitle them to do what is necessary to defend themselves.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) made an excellent and most informative speech. His comparison between the way in which the individuals who have been taken hostage are being used in Bosnia and the circumstances in Iraq some years ago, when Saddam Hussein applied a similar policy, should remind everyone of the folly of such a policy, and its inevitable failure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) sought to use the analogy of Vietnam and to imply that somehow this conflict would move in the same direction. The issue that differentiates this conflict from Vietnam is a fundamental one. The issue in Vietnam was not the number of American troops or the fact that that increased over the years, but the basic fact that the United States was a combatant. It went in to defeat the Vietcong, and took that decision at an early stage. We have not taken such a decision, nor have we any intention of doing so.

The House has an important contribution to make to the well-being of our forces in Bosnia. They need to know that they have the unqualified endorsement of the House. It is important for their morale and for their commitment. It is important that they know that they have the support not only of the United Kingdom but of its Parliament, and I commend that to the House.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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