HC Deb 24 February 1998 vol 307 cc173-87 3.31 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the recent crisis over weapons inspections in Iraq, and the agreement signed by the United Nations Secretary-General and the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq in Baghdad yesterday. Since the text of the agreement is now in the public domain, I am arranging for copies to be placed in the Library of the House.

It is worth recalling again the origins of the crisis. One of the main conditions of the Gulf war ceasefire in 1991 was that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction should be destroyed or rendered harmless by inspectors working for the United Nations. That was embodied in Security Council resolution 687. Since then, the UN weapons inspectors have done a tremendous job in finding and destroying those weapons. The full details have been given to the House before, but they include horrific amounts of chemical and biological weapons. The inspectors achieved that despite systematic obstruction, deceit and concealment by Saddam Hussein, which caused repeated confrontation between the UN Security Council and Iraq.

There was a crisis in November about the composition of UNSCOM teams, which was resolved by Saddam Hussein agreeing to allow the inspectors back in, following a diplomatic agreement brokered by the Russians. Crucially, however, that was not written down or followed by a fresh Security Council resolution. He almost immediately went back on the agreement, plunging us into the most recent crisis about access to presidential compounds, some of them large and containing hundreds of buildings, and presidential palaces. This has not been an artificial argument about some theoretical threat, but a reflection of real alarm on the part of UN inspectors about the use of those sites to conceal both evidence and actual weapons. The Security Council cannot accept that any areas remain off limits.

Saddam began by saying that there could be no access to the sites. Then, under intense pressure, not least from the start of the build-up of forces in the Gulf, he eventually agreed that they could be visited once. That was clearly unacceptable, but he refused to move further. Meanwhile, we and the Americans, together with our other allies, continued to make it clear that, if he did not back down, we saw no alternative in the end to the use of force. We made preparations to ensure that we were ready to use force, if absolutely necessary.

Under that renewed pressure, Saddam Hussein began to show readiness to move further. On the basis of a text drafted by Britain, the five permanent members of the Security Council agreed last week that the UN Secretary-General should go to Baghdad to make it clear to Saddam Hussein that he had to comply fully and unconditionally with the relevant Security Council resolutions, and to negotiate a written agreement on those lines. It was clear to all that if Saddam was not prepared to agree, force might have to be used, albeit with the greatest reluctance.

I am delighted that Kofi Annan, for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration, has succeeded in his mission and has brought back a signed agreement, the details of which have now become public. He will report to the Security Council this afternoon on his discussions with the Iraqi Government.

The key provisions of the agreement are as follows: Iraq reconfirms its acceptance of the relevant Security Council resolutions, including 687, and its readiness to co-operate fully with UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency; Iraq undertakes to accord immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to UNSCOM and the IAEA; a special group will be established to inspect eight clearly defined presidential sites. It will be composed of UNSCOM and IAEA experts, together with diplomats appointed by the Secretary-General, and headed by a commissioner, also appointed by the Secretary-General. The group will operate under the established procedures of UNSCOM and the IAEA, but with some extra specific procedures related to the nature of the sites.

We await clarification of the details of the special group, but three things are essential. First, the commissioner in charge of the group must be properly qualified for the task. Secondly, the details of the inspection regime must preserve in full the professional and technical nature of the inspections and the inspectors. Thirdly, there can be no question of negotiating with Saddam Hussein over the integrity of the weapons inspection process. I am confident from our contacts with the Secretary-General that he understands those points.

I welcome the agreement, and pay tribute to Secretary-General Kofi Annan's achievement in securing it. It has been an important demonstration of the value of the United Nations and its absolutely vital role in the world. We should never forget that, if we do not stop Saddam Hussein acting in breach of his agreement on weapons of mass destruction, the losers will be not just those threatened by him, but the authority and standing of the UN itself.

The agreement refers to the desire of the Iraqi Government for the lifting of sanctions. No timetable is set for this. The sanctions have always been there for a reason: to ensure full compliance of Iraq with the relevant Security Council resolutions. Once that is achieved, the issue of lifting sanctions can be properly addressed.

Let me also deal with one false assertion often made by the Iraqi regime. It has never been our intention to undermine Iraq's territorial integrity, or its security, or the dignity of the Iraqi people. The issue has always been to ensure that there are no weapons of mass destruction left in Saddam Hussein's arsenal. The agreement repeats that and makes it clear.

However, while the agreement signed in Baghdad is welcome, it is not in itself enough. A piece of paper signed by the Iraqi regime plainly cannot be enough. The Saddam Hussein we face today is the same Saddam Hussein we faced yesterday. He has not changed. He remains an evil, brutal dictator. The only thing that has changed is that he has changed his mind in the face of effective diplomacy and firm willingness to use force. Nothing else would or could have brought about this success. Nothing else will ensure that it is followed up by satisfactory implementation on the ground and the total elimination of his capacity to obtain or produce weapons of mass destruction.

We will not tolerate any repetition of the Iraqi behaviour that has led to this agreement. We are not going to play more elaborate diplomatic games that allow Saddam Hussein to thwart the inspections regime that has now been agreed.

That is why there are now two essential requirements in the coming days. First, we need to embody the agreement in a new Security Council resolution. This must make it clear that any further prevarication or obstruction by Saddam Hussein of the smooth operation of the inspections, in accordance with previous Security Council resolutions and the latest agreement, will not be accepted by any member of the Security Council and will inescapably be followed by the most severe consequences for the Iraqi regime.

Secondly, the implementation of the agreement must be tested soon. That will require inspections by UNSCOM without any Iraqi obstruction, whenever and wherever it wishes to inspect. There will be no immediate change in the readiness of British or US armed forces in the Gulf until that is clear.

Throughout the dispute, our aim has been a peaceful, diplomatic settlement. There was no desire on either side of the Atlantic to use force, but it was also clear to us throughout that Saddam Hussein only understands and respects force. Those who have criticised us and the Americans for our willingness to use force in the last resort have to explain how such an attitude could have recovered Kuwait in 1990, or could ensure Saddam's compliance now. I do not believe that they can convincingly do so. As Kofi Annan said in Baghdad: You can achieve much by diplomacy, but you can achieve a lot more when diplomacy is backed by firmness and force". I would put it this way: with Saddam, diplomacy plus force equals success.

Our task now is to do everything we can to ensure that the agreement reached by Kofi Annan is smoothly, effectively and rapidly implemented. We played a key diplomatic role in the negotiations leading up to his mission and we will continue to play the same role in the follow-up. I have already discussed this with Presidents Clinton, Yeltsin and Chirac in the past 24 hours, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in close touch with his counterparts. We are all agreed on the need for a rapid and clear Security Council resolution to ensure that we cannot find ourselves in the same position again in the future. That will be the main focus of our immediate efforts.

I have made it clear that when Saddam Hussein has complied fully with the Security Council resolutions, the UN inspectors have completed the disarmament stage of their work and the threat from his weapons of mass destruction has gone, we can consider the lifting of sanctions. Indeed, if Saddam had not blocked the implementation of UNSCOM's work so systematically, that could have happened long ago. The long-suffering Iraqi people deserve our sympathy and our help—our quarrel was never, and is not, with them.

We led the way in New York last week in the adoption of a new Security Council resolution that more than doubles Iraq's ability to sell oil for food—even though, I may say, food and medicine have never been subject to sanctions of any kind. I hope that, this time, Saddam will allow the scheme to be utilised properly for the benefit of all his people. Meanwhile, we will maintain and, if possible, increase the direct bilateral help we give to the Iraqi people, through appropriate non-governmental organisations.

Saddam Hussein has spent seven years playing for time, but has been thwarted by the resolve of the international community. It is now clearer than ever that his games have to stop once and for all. If they do not, the consequences should be clear to all. Throughout, our objectives have been plain: to do everything in our power to destroy Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction; to hold out the prospect of relief for the Iraqi people; and to uphold the will of the United Nations. That is what we have done, and it is what we will continue to do.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

We are grateful to the Prime Minister for his statement, and I thank him for keeping me informed about these matters in recent weeks.

We on the Conservative Benches have always made clear our undivided support for the position of the Government and of the United States, and we do so again today. We agree that diplomacy backed by firmness is the right way to deal with Saddam Hussein. I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Kofi Annan for the skill with which he has carried out his mission. Clearly, the threat of the use of force was key to getting the agreement of Saddam Hussein to comply with the resolution of the Security Council. On behalf of the Opposition, I also pay tribute to our armed forces, who have, yet again, responded with great professionalism and, once again, been ready to risk their lives.

On the details of the agreement, may I ask the Prime Minister what is meant by the UNSCOM undertaking to respect the legitimate concerns of Iraq relating to national security, sovereignty and dignity"? How much risk is there that those words could be used by Saddam Hussein as a pretext for further delay and obstruction? Can the Prime Minister confirm that the new procedures for inspection will not be subject to any veto by Saddam Hussein? Can he also say a little more about the consequences of any failure on the part of Saddam Hussein to comply with the terms of the new agreement?

Can the Prime Minister confirm that the reference in paragraph 1 of the memorandum of understanding to all relevant resolutions of the Security Council includes resolution 678, which authorises the use of force? How confident is he that a further resolution will be secured authorising the use of force if the agreement is not kept? The Prime Minister referred in his statement to the "most severe consequences". May we presume that that means the use of force?

On a wider point, does the Prime Minister agree that there is now a great opportunity for the United Kingdom to show fresh leadership and initiative in the middle east, both by ensuring that there is a stronger coalition against Saddam Hussein in the event of any repetition of the crisis and by taking forward the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians?

Finally, this crisis in the middle east, which required a military response—and continues to require a military presence—occurred after the decision that the United Kingdom and the United States would stay on in Bosnia and during a difficult time in Northern Ireland. Therefore, does the Prime Minister agree that the strategic defence review, which is now approaching completion, could not reasonably conclude that there is scope for reducing the defence budget?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support and that of his colleagues throughout the recent period. I join him in thanking our armed forces for maintaining a state of alert and readiness in the middle east.

In respect of Iraq and the reference to its dignity and security, it was precisely for that reason that I emphasised yet again that there is no quarrel with the Iraqi people or with the territorial integrity of Iraq. The quarrel is with Saddam Hussein's regime and its failure to abide by the Security Council resolutions.

Saddam Hussein certainly has no veto over the inspections. The consequences are, and will be, clear. That is precisely why we seek an additional Security Council resolution. We do not want to return to long-drawn-out negotiations that Saddam Hussein could use to thwart the intentions of the international community. The use of force is there—and there is force to be used should Saddam Hussein not comply with the agreement that he has entered into.

I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman's comment that the United Kingdom can play a very significant role. We provided the right leadership in the crisis in respect of the Iraqi weapons inspection regime. I agree also that Britain must try to move on and play what part we can—both in itself and as President of the European Union—in the middle east peace process. Many Arab nations have been concerned and frustrated about the lack of progress in that area. They look to us for leadership, and we certainly intend to provide it. Indeed, the European Union issued a statement yesterday on that point which was put together by the Foreign Secretary.

Finally, in relation to the strategic defence review, I hesitate to enter into a discussion about the position of defence expenditure. However—I shall try to put it gently—I can promise absolutely that we shall not repeat the mistakes of the previous Conservative Government and cut the defence force budget by 30 per cent. I think that that was the cut in the past few years.

I agree entirely that the main areas to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—Northern Ireland, Bosnia and our ability to play a constructive role in the Gulf—are important. Britain must continue to carry out its role in those areas. I have always thought and said that this country's defence forces are vital to our foreign policy and Britain's standing in the world. That is precisely why the strategic defence review will ensure that our armed forces have a secure and certain future.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The world owes a literally incalculable debt to the Secretary-General of the United Nations for finding a way back from war at the last perilous moment. That will greatly strengthen his position and that of the United Nations in the future. For that, we shall learn to be very grateful.

Whatever reservations one might have about the way in which the international community has handled this matter in the past four years, the Government's handling of it in the past few months has been clear-sighted, determined and consistent. That has done great credit to the country and to the standing of the Prime Minister, and I congratulate him.

I have three points to make briefly to the Prime Minister. The first is on sanctions. Of course it is right that military pressure must be maintained, and that we must measure delivery against results, not words. Surely that means that the lifting of sanctions cannot, as some in the United States believe, be attached to the person of Saddam Hussein, but is attached to his behaviour. If, in the long term, UNSCOM gives a clean bill of health to Iraq, there is no reason why sanctions should not be lifted completely.

Secondly, how will the Prime Minister use the strengthened relationship that he has with President Clinton's Administration to encourage the United States to put more pressure on the Government of Mr. Netanyahu also to observe UN resolutions, for long-term peace in the middle east is based on that?

Lastly, the Atlantic relationship, which has been the key relationship underpinning effective diplomacy, based on the ability ultimately to use force if necessary, will nevertheless have caused concerns among our European partners, as I expect the Prime Minister knows. What will he do to reassure our European partners that this Government, unlike their predecessors, see the Atlantic relationship as complementary to our central relationship with Europe, rather than a substitute for it?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words and for the support that he and his party have given us throughout the past few weeks. I shall deal with each of his points in turn.

First, it is important that we realise that the sanctions are attached to compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions. We have made that clear throughout.

Secondly, in respect of pressure on the present Government in Israel, yes, I agree, as I said earlier, that it is important for us to play our part in ensuring that there is progress in the middle east. We must do so in a way that does not cut across the United States, but is complementary to the efforts that the United States is making. I met all the Arab ambassadors yesterday and discussed with them what help we can give to try to push forward the middle east peace process.

Thirdly, I know that the right hon. Gentleman was not criticising the Atlantic relationship. I am proud of the fact that Britain has a good and strong relationship with the United States of America. Thank heavens, the Americans are there and are willing to stand up and be counted when difficult situations arise in the world.

I believe that it is important that the American Administration and the American people are not isolationist, but are willing to face up to and take on responsibilities. I further believe that the strength of our relationship with the United States is no impediment to Europe acting in a more concerted way or to Britain's relations with Europe. "Strong with the United States, strong in Europe"—that should be Britain's motto. It is good for Britain, good for Europe and good for the United States of America.

Contrary to some of the reports that I read in the papers, we kept closely in contact with our European Union partners throughout recent weeks. I spoke with virtually all the Heads of State in the European Union over the past few days. It is extremely important to recognise—[Interruption.]—if the Eurosceptics on the Conservative Benches will forgive me—that Europe gave us very good support. The standing of the entire international community, not just of those countries willing to send forces to the Gulf, has been reinvigorated by the past few weeks.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the appeasers in the House and in the soft-centre press had had their way, and if the threat of force and the maintenance of sanctions had not been there, Kofi Annan's agreement would not have been possible? Will he confirm that, until not only resolution 687 but all relevant United Nations resolutions are complied with, sanctions will remain? Will he confirm also that this is it—that if this agreement is broken by Saddam Hussein, force will inevitably follow?

The Prime Minister

That is certainly right on the first point. As for the latter point, that is exactly the purpose of securing the new Security Council resolution. It is important that all the resolutions of the United Nations are properly complied with.

On my right hon. Friend's first point, it cannot seriously be denied that, unless we had been prepared to back up by force the diplomatic efforts that were made, we would never have secured the agreement that Kofi Annan obtained in Baghdad. Britain was not simply involved in building up forces in the Gulf, although we did play our part in that, and I am glad we did. It was the right thing to do. We have been intensely involved in the diplomatic effort as well.

It was Britain which put together the Security Council guidance for Kofi Annan's mission to Baghdad. It was Britain which put together the resolution on doubling the oil for food resolution. It is Britain which is now taking the lead in putting the new Security Council resolution together. Not merely generally, but particularly in our case, force and diplomacy have gone together.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

In welcoming the obvious improvement in the situation over the past week, and recognising the vital importance of ensuring that the agreement is adhered to, may I ask whether the Prime Minister accepts that there will be wide support for ensuring that resolution 687 is complied with? Does he further agree that, against that background, the inspection teams must carry on their work and complete it, as the resolution requires, thus enabling sanctions to be lifted and a normal situation restored?

Has the Prime Minister seen the worrying stories that the work of the inspection teams may be being undermined by the locations of the places that they intend to visit being disclosed by members of the inspection teams to the Iraqi Administration, thus enabling that Administration to carry on their deceit? Will the Prime Minister agree that it must be in the interests of everybody, including the people of Iraq, that the inspection work is successfully carried out, and that any such attempts to break the security of the inspection teams are prevented?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support over the past few days. He is absolutely right to say that the inspection teams must carry on and complete their work. I do not know of any instances, though I have read the reports, of the work of the inspection teams being given to the Iraqi regime. Of course, I would deplore any such breach of the security of the inspection teams. It is vital, as a result of the history of the weapons inspections, that we ensure that the security of the inspection teams is watertight. It is only by gaining access to sites as quickly as possible that we can prevent concealment.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the main immediate beneficiaries of what has happened are many tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq, who might have been killed by British and American forces? They have been spared a death which could not in any way have been attributed to their behaviour.

The main contribution has been made by Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Not only has he worked for peace, but he has to some extent rescued the United Nations from the attempt by the United States to dominate it; there never was and never will be a majority of the Security Council in favour of the use of force. Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people, including me, were very disappointed that a Labour Government would have been prepared to go in and use force against the majority view of the Security Council and of world opinion?

The Prime Minister

Of course, my right hon. Friend is entirely entitled to his point of view. He enjoys a freedom here that, of course, he would not enjoy in Iraq. I honestly believe that Kofi Annan would not accept the version of events that my right hon. Friend has given. If my right hon. Friend were to talk to him, as I have done, he would find that Kofi Annan accepted that it was essential that there was firm resolve and a willingness to use force in order to get his diplomatic efforts to succeed.

I can tell my right hon. Friend that one of the hardest things to do, because of the nature of the Iraqi regime, was to persuade Saddam Hussein that we were serious about using force. It is my view, for what it is worth, that it was only when Saddam Hussein became aware that we were serious about using force that he began to make any form of concessions.

Should Saddam Hussein breach the agreement that he has now reached, I think that international opinion would be firmly with us in saying that we have to make sure that he adheres to the agreements that he has made.

The possibility of innocent people suffering in Iraq weighed very heavily on us, but responsibility for that lies with the regime itself. It is not merely preventing proper humanitarian aid from getting to its people; it actually moves people to sites which it thinks may be hit, to try to deter attacks from abroad—to use them, in other words, as human shields. I think that it would be better to direct that fire at the Iraqi regime.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Exactly what procedures will be followed to determine whether Saddam Hussein is breaking the agreement, particularly when the inspection teams are accompanied by diplomats from a number of countries? Will it be the responsibility of the commissioner, when appointed, to report back formally to the United Nations that the agreement has been broken? If it is envisaged that the use of force will follow quickly upon a breach—it may be necessary to do so—it is extremely important that there should not then be international debate about whether the agreement has been broken.

The Prime Minister

I agree. That is a perfectly fair point to make. It is important to realise that the commissioner will report back, through the Secretary-General, to the Security Council. In respect of the sites other than the eight presidential sites, the regime is precisely the same. The regime that already exists has been reaffirmed in its entirety. In respect of the eight presidential sites, the changes have been laid down by the Secretary-General himself, and Saddam Hussein is not negotiating on the terms of those inspections.

We have not found in the past a problem deciding whether the agreements that Saddam Hussein has made on weapons inspections have been broken. There was never a disagreement that he was in breach of the weapons inspection regimes. The disagreement has been whether the response should be one of force. However, I believe that, in the procedures that are laid down, we shall be able to see clearly whether a breach has occurred; if it has, the consequences that I mentioned will follow.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Given that the critics were as wrong in the past few weeks as they were seven years ago about the liberation of Kuwait, would not an apology be appropriate from those people, be they in the House or outside, who accused Britain and America of warmongering? As my right hon. Friend said, the only reason we had success in the diplomatic field—we are very pleased about that—was the threat of force.

I note what my right hon. Friend said about medical supplies and the responsibility belonging to Saddam Hussein—sanctions must continue for the reasons that the Prime Minister stated—but is there any way in which urgent medical supplies could go to hospitals in Iraq so long as UN officials and international agencies are convinced that they will be used for children and innocent civilians, and not for the criminal elite who have used medical supplies for themselves?

The Prime Minister

We are looking at how we can ensure that the urgent medical supplies get through better to the Iraqi people and to Iraqi hospitals. Under the oil for food and medicine regime, far more food and humanitarian aid could have gone through to the Iraqi people. We are looking at ways to bypass the Iraqi regime and ensure that more is done in that regard.

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend's first point. It is also important to realise—I have certainly felt it very deeply indeed throughout this matter—that no one but a fool or a villain would want to send our forces into battle. The reason we have been prepared to contemplate it, and are prepared to contemplate it if the agreed regime is breached, is precisely because we believe that, if we do not do so, the threat to world security, peace and stability will be all the greater. The alternative is to do nothing, which is probably the riskiest option of all.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Obviously, the Prime Minister deserves congratulations on the way in which the nation has been able to stand by and ensure that a solution came about. Would he mind pointing out to those who make a great play about the damage that bombing might have done to the civilian population of Iraq that that damage and death would be nothing compared with the destruction that could be brought about by Saddam Hussein if he used those weapons for his purpose on the surrounding nations? That would be much greater than any other damage.

Secondly, will the Prime Minister follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir P. Tapsell) suggested and assure the House that, if there is a breach, the Secretary-General will not have to go back to Baghdad to negotiate before we can act? We must not get into such a position, because Saddam delays whenever he can.

The Prime Minister

That is right, and that is precisely why we need a new Security Council resolution. We also need to test the agreement, which is why any optimism that I have is tinged with caution. We will not be through this crisis until we get the Security Council resolution that we need and test the agreement that Saddam Hussein has entered into. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that leaving Saddam with weapons of mass destruction is not a peaceful option; it is extremely dangerous, which is why we took the action we did.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Were the past four British ambassadors to Iraq, who wrote to The Independent on 16 February along with Sir Donald Maitland and the arms negotiator, David Summerhayes, wrong to say: If, after two months, the inspection has proceeded without interference, a further easing of sanctions will be authorised"? Are the Government talking to the Government of Iran, whose country lost 1 million dead in the war with Iraq—casualties of first world war proportions—but do not want military action? The Prime Minister met Arab ambassadors yesterday. Did any one of them recommend military action?

The Prime Minister

No, the letter is not right to specify a time limit for easing sanctions, although it is true to say that sanctions are tied to compliance with UN resolutions. For the purposes of the Iraqi people and to restore normality, we want sanctions to be lifted, but that cannot happen until the resolutions are complied with, which is why the sanctions were imposed in the first place.

We have had contact with the Iranian Government; it was sensible for us to do that. My hon. Friend referred to Arab opinion and my meeting with the ambassadors yesterday. It would be a serious mistake to think that Arab opinion is on the side of Saddam Hussein. It is not. There may have been disagreements over the use of force, but Arab countries are deeply worried, with good reason, about any capability that Saddam Hussein may have to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The ambassadors put questions to me. Although most Arab nations have publicly opposed the use of force, they have also insisted on compliance with UN resolutions. Privately, they are a lot more concerned about Saddam Hussein and a lot more grateful for people standing up to him and the threat that he poses. There is concern—I understand it—because the Arab nations want progress on their other great issue, the middle east peace process. That point was made strongly.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

What lessons has the Prime Minister learnt from the Iraq crisis about the prospect of a genuine European foreign policy being created?

The Prime Minister

As I said earlier, most European countries agreed entirely with us; indeed, many that I spoke to made it clear that if diplomacy failed they would support the use of force. It is in our interest—this may be a point of difference between the two political parties—to have a coherent European foreign policy as well as a strong relationship with the United States.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

When the Prime Minister met the Arab ambassadors yesterday, did he raise the issue of systematic human rights violations in most of the countries neighbouring Iraq? Has he raised with Turkey its constant violation of human rights in eastern Turkey, and the persistent invasions of Iraq by Turkish armed forces over the past two years?

The Prime Minister

We have constantly raised our concerns about the violation of human rights with Turkey and other Arab states over this past period of time, but, obviously, the ambassadors and I discussed principally the middle east peace process and the immediate threat posed by the Iraqi regime.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Along with my Northern Ireland colleagues, I welcome the Prime Minister's statement, congratulate him on the stand that he has taken in supporting the Americans throughout this difficult period and welcome his clear expression of good will on the part of the United Kingdom towards the people of Iraq.

Now that that major problem has diminished somewhat, may I ask the Prime Minister to direct his attention towards Northern Ireland, and to the need to ensure that never again can weapons get into our prisons and prisoners be murdered; nor can we experience the huge bombings—

Madam Speaker

Order. I cannot allow that question; it does not relate to the statement. Of course, I will give the Prime Minister an opportunity to respond if he wishes, but he should not do so, because the question does not relate to the statement. Questions must always relate to the statement.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The resolute approach has clearly worked. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), and the whole Foreign Office team are to be congratulated on what they have done.

I recognise that the idea of a Basra enclave has now been suspended, temporarily in my view. What can we do—what can the British Government do—to strengthen the position, internationally, of the Iraqi National Congress, and to promote it as the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people? Only through the INC will we secure an ultimate solution.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. It is certainly through the Iraqi people that salvation for them from Saddam Hussein will come, and, obviously, we constantly look at ways in which we can strengthen the Iraqi opposition. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is and has been in constant touch with the opposition.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The Prime Minister said that diplomacy plus force equals success; but we are not there yet. That success depends on Saddam Hussein, and on his keeping his word—and he has not done that too often. One of the ways in which he has frustrated UNSCOM is by refusing to allow Iraqi Government controllers to escort the UNSCOM force. If he continues to refuse to do that, does that mean that bombings will follow?

The Prime Minister

Obviously, members of the inspection team must themselves judge the degree to which Saddam Hussein is frustrating any particular part of the inspections process. I do not think it would be right for me to decide that for them. The whole purpose is that they decide whether the integrity of the weapons inspection process is upheld.

However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we are not there yet. It is important to stress that. Saddam Hussein must be made to keep his word, which is precisely why we are saying both that we need the Security Council resolution and that then we must test it. That is why I say that—although we are obviously delighted at what Kofi Annan has achieved, and are optimistic about it—the caution is there, precisely because of the point that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

When the Prime Minister sends messages of congratulation across the Atlantic, will he praise in particular the fact that President Clinton has resisted the hawkish Republicans in the Congress—and some in his own Administration—and gone for the negotiation outcome? Does the Prime Minister agree that the success of the efforts of Kofi Annan and our own Government will assist the credibility of the United Nations, and, we hope, lead to the United States Congress restoring the money that it still owes to the successful building up of the UN's future?

The Prime Minister

What Kofi Annan has achieved greatly boosts the authority and standing of the UN. I agree with my hon. Friend that it has been important throughout to ensure that we act reasonably. It would have been reasonable to use force if negotiation had not been successful. It is equally reasonable, if the negotiated settlement is there, to take it. That is the balance which civilised people would expect us to make.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Notwithstanding the agreement, if America, for whatever reason, decided to use force, would Britain back her?

The Prime Minister

I am pleased to say that our position and that of the United States on this have been united throughout, and I am sure that that will continue to be true.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)

In congratulating the Prime Minister, may I ask simply this? It is the common aim, shared by all hon. Members, to inflict the minimum damage on the people of Iraq, but to do everything in our power to bring about their leader's downfall. How can that product possibly be assisted by continuing to impoverish those people by the imposition of sanctions, thereby providing Saddam Hussein with the alibi he requires to explain to his people that the misery they suffer lies at our door and not at his?

Will my right hon. Friend contemplate the lessons of history, from Germany in the 1920s, to Vietnam, to Cuba and to South Africa, that totalitarian regimes are never brought down through the agency of their people by the imposition of external sanctions?

The Prime Minister

I have to say to my hon. and learned Friend that I remember, when we sat on the Opposition side of the House of Commons throughout the 1980s, fighting the case for sanctions against South Africa, and most people thought that that had a significant impact.

We are not impoverishing the Iraqi people at all. Ample money under the oil for food and medicines programme could be used for the Iraqi people. It would be a mistake to believe that Saddam Hussein was maintained in power by the love and affection of the Iraqi people. He is maintained in power by a ruthless dictatorship, which comprises, in particular, a special Republican Guard of 26,000 people, who are not immune to using murder, torture and whatever barbaric behaviour comes to hand to keep him in power. The reason why sanctions are there is to ensure compliance with UN resolutions, and sanctions have to remain until there is compliance.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The right hon. Gentleman feels a sense of satisfaction that he has the approbation of yesterday's European Union Foreign Ministers meeting at Brussels, which unanimously approved the agreement that the UN Secretary-General concluded, thanks to the resolution of Her Majesty's Government, the British armed forces and, above all, the Americans. Will he, then, tell the House whether those same European friends are willing to take punitive military action, with us and the United States, if Saddam Hussein abrogates the agreement?

The Prime Minister

I really think that it would be pretty pointless to turn this occasion into a great attack on the European Union, but the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that it is not actually true to say that no other European country supported the action we took. From memory, I think that I am right in saying that Germany, Netherlands and Portugal all offered specific support. Other countries made it clear that they would back the use of force if diplomatic means failed, and the statement that came out of the European Union Ministers meeting showed a degree of consensus throughout Europe for the stand that was taken. We should welcome that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, Iraq's average gross domestic product has dropped to less than one eighth of its previous level? That has had devastating consequences for the people of Iraq. What do we intend to do to assist the development of democracy, peace and economic and social progress in Iraq?

The Prime Minister

Obviously, we will do what we can to assist opposition groups in Iraq and to look at ways in which we can undermine Saddam Hussein in any shape or form. Most people would be delighted if he were to fall. If we had had to take military action and, as a consequence, he had fallen, we would have been delighted at that, too. The problem with saying that we should have set some sort of military objective to remove Saddam Hussein—I know that my hon. Friend was not suggesting that—was that there was not the authority to do so; nor would it have been possible without a massive commitment of ground as well as air forces. We will do what we can to assist opposition forces in Iraq and to undermine Saddam Hussein in any way we can.

As for the income of the Iraqi people and their suffering, the answer is obvious and clear. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was telling me, for all but two years of Saddam's regime, Iraq has been at war or under sanctions. Potentially, Iraq is a rich and prosperous country and it is a tragedy that, as a result of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, the Iraqi people are not in a position to enjoy that.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Can the Prime Minister confirm that the agreement unambiguously and unequivocally binds Saddam to existing United Nations resolutions, in particular 678 and 687, as well as giving access to the eight presidential sites? If that is the case, why is it necessary to instigate another Security Council resolution, given the sad fact that most draft resolutions are changed substantially before they become resolutions? Even if that does not happen, what would happen if one of the permanent members of the Security Council disagreed?

The Prime Minister

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point is yes, it certainly reaffirms the existing resolutions. In answer to the second, it is important to have another Security Council resolution because it is important to have the will of international community clearly expressed and for all permanent members of the Security Council together to say that the serious consequences outlined will clearly follow if Saddam Hussein breaks the agreement that he has entered into. In our view, it is of benefit to us both in our dealings with Saddam Hussein and in terms of support from the international community that such a resolution is put through.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May I add my congratulations to the Prime Minister and Ministers on their firm resolve in this matter? It is as plain as a pikestaff to me that there would have been no diplomatic solution had that firm resolve and cool nerve not been maintained.

I guess that my right hon. Friend will be having further discussions with the United States—there will sensibly be some debriefing and a review of recent events. Will it be reiterated in any such review that a further Security Council resolution would have been essential had Kofi Annan not succeeded in achieving a diplomatic settlement? Some people might well argue that the existing resolutions gave a mandate, but those of us who believe that firm resolve had to be shown thought that a further resolution was necessary. That is worth reviewing.

I hope that those consequences will not occur again. Those of us who are trying to promote world order and who believe in it and in the enforcement and status of the United Nations, think that it would have been a big mistake to use force without that further mandate.

The Prime Minister

There is, and has been, a debate about that, although it is possible to argue that no further mandate was necessary. Fortunately, we will get a new and proper Security Council resolution. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I very much hope that we have a solution now, but we need to tie down those final points before that is absolutely certain.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. I am bringing the exchanges to a close now. Thank you, Prime Minister.

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