HC Deb 21 January 1998 vol 304 cc987-94 1.30 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I thank Madam Speaker for granting me this important Adjournment debate.

It looks like we are building up to another military conflict in the Gulf. It has even been suggested that it will be in a couple of weeks' time, when Ramadan is over, in order to assuage Arab sensitivities.

I am opposed to any renewed war. Can the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), tell me what the war aim would be this time? Would it be compliance with the United Nations resolutions? While Saddam Hussein stays in power, that compliance would not be worth the paper an agreement was written on. He has little incentive to comply because the United States has publicly stated that sanctions will remain in place—and largely unaltered—while he remains in power. Perhaps the war aim would be to remove Saddam Hussein from power, or even to kill him. How many Iraqis would it be acceptable to kill this time around? President Bush ended the previous war because more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in a turkey shoot, yet the allied armies were nowhere near Baghdad. How many British and US troops could be killed in such an operation? Saddam Hussein might escape anyway.

Perhaps the war aim would be to bomb Baghdad or even to raze it to the ground. As the New York Times has said, the targets would be difficult to choose without assuming enormous civilian casualties. Would it be our intention to occupy Iraq and install a puppet Government? The activities of the IRA would be like a tea party compared with the terrorism that our occupying forces would face in such circumstances. If the Government are travelling along with the Americans towards another war that could kill thousands of Iraqis and some of our people, they should spell out the war aim without blandness or obfuscation.

Richard Butler, the chief UN arms inspector, visited Iraq earlier this week, and said: It is about disarmament. Iraq must comply with the UN. That is not so. As I have pointed out, the US has issued clear and categorical statements that it will never agree to lifting sanctions while Saddam Hussein is in power. There is, therefore, no incentive for Iraq to comply because the sanctions will not be lifted anyway. It is all about pretexts for further conflict and not about compliance.

Let us consider the composition of the UN inspection teams. One consists of 16 members—nine from the US, five from Britain, one from Russia and one from Australia. Scott Ritter's team, which provoked the current dispute, consists of six Americans and three Britons. On Saturday 17 January, The Guardian reported: China and France have put forward lists of their own experts to take the place of US and British inspectors. Can my hon. Friend tell me why that offer has been rejected? The paper also went on to report: The Russian defence minister, Igor Sergeyev, offered his country's surveillance aircraft to take the place of American U2 spy-planes, but the offer was turned down yesterday by his US counterpart, William Cohen. I do not believe that Iraq can insist on a deadline for the completion of weapons inspections, but it is legitimate for it to ask when those teams will complete their work. Surely the American answer to that is that that work will never be completed while Saddam Hussein is in power. Whether Iraq complies or not makes a marginal difference to the western approach to it. The US will veto or undermine any attempt to ease the sanctions against Iraq.

We should remember that those inspections are being carried out in the name of the UN, but I remind the Minister that the US has still not paid its $800 million dues to that organisation. Sanctions are a form of economic warfare which, for ordinary people, can be almost as devastating as the military version. In 1919, US President Woodrow Wilson described sanctions as a quiet but most lethal weapon that exerts a pressure no nation can withstand. The sanctions were imposed on Iraq following a devastating war and they are the most draconian and lethal form of economic warfare in modern history. More than a million people have died as a result of sanctions-related problems. Many of those victims have been children and those deaths still occur.

On 26 November 1997, UNICEF issued a press release on Iraq, which stated: The most alarming results are those on malnutrition, with 32 per cent. of children under the age of five, some 960,000 children, chronically malnourished—a rise of 72 per cent. since 1991. Philippe Heffinck, UNICEF's representative in Baghdad, states in that press release: What we are seeing is a dramatic deterioration in the nutritional well-being of Iraqi children since 1991. And what concerns us now is that there is no sign of any improvement … It is clear that children are bearing the brunt of the current economic hardship. They must be protected from the impact of sanctions. Otherwise, they will continue to suffer, and that we cannot accept. On 28 November, UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, produced a detailed report on the impact of sanctions. He, too, quoted nutritional surveys that confirmed the high level of malnutrition among children and adults in Iraq. He said that the general level of malnutrition among infants had not improved. He also reported: The current food ration … and, in particular, its composition fall far short of meeting the nutritional needs of the Iraqi population. This is particularly valid since nutritional security is contingent upon a host of interrelated factors, such as safe water and available medicine, which are grossly inadequate at the moment. The current ration, even if it is distributed completely and in a timely manner, cannot address the chronic malnutrition and energy deficiency in adults. In order to improve the current serious situation, an enhanced ration is required. In the health sector, United Nations observers regularly report an exceptionally serious deterioration in the health infrastructure: a high infant mortality rate and high rates of morbidity and mortality in general … Inputs under the resolution in the health sector will remain of limited impact if other related areas, such as proper treatment of water supply and sewage, electricity, improved quality of food rations and critical environmental problems, are not adequately addressed. The Secretary-General also reports that the supply of drugs is inadequate and says: As for supplies to treat acute respiratory disease and diarrhoea, associated with 50 per cent. of mortality among children under five, deliveries have been grossly insufficient. He concludes: The population of Iraq continues to face a serious nutritional and health situation and there is an urgent need to contain the risk of a further deterioration … The slow and erratic pace at which humanitarian inputs arrive in Iraq has been very unsatisfactory.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

My hon. Friend knows that I disagree with him on this issue, although I agree with him on most others. He must be aware that under the present sanctions regime, up to 70 per cent. of the oil production is allowed to be sold, which is similar to the amount that was sold before sanctions were imposed. Is it not the case that Saddam Hussein has had considerable resources at his disposal which he could have used to alleviate the suffering of his own people? He has chosen not to do so and instead he has decided to continue to build weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Cohen

I will deal with that point as part of my speech, but let us deal with the suffering first, on which I am afraid my hon. Friend and some other hon. Members seem content to turn their back. The House should not turn its back on it.

Margaret Hassan of Care International said: There isn't a hospital we go into where we don't see severely malnourished children. It's a spiral of deprivation and this is being manifested through malnourishment. She reports that medical shortages are reflected throughout the country and says: I've seen a child that was severely burnt and they didn't even have paracetamol to give that child. I have received a letter from Felicity Arbuthnot, a journalist who has just returned from her 10th visit to Iraq since the war. It is a moving letter which deserves to be put in full on to the official record. Part of it will be published in the New Internationalist. I shall read one paragraph to give the House a flavour of it. Felicity Arbuthnot says: By 1993, doctors in Iraq had discovered a new diagnosis. Women too malnourished to breast feed and unable to buy milk powder (a can then as now exceeds the average monthly professional's salary) fed their babies on sugared water or sugared black tea. These babies become chronically malnourished, hugely bloated and almost all die. Doctors call them 'the sugar babies. She says that this embargo-related child mortality is comparable to the genocide of Pol Pot in the name of 'we the people of the United Nations.' Does Britain's new 'ethical' foreign policy really include supporting genocide"? Mary Robinson, the new UN High Commissioner, spoke at Oxford university on 15 November last year. She said: How can you expect me to condemn Human Rights abuses in Algeria and China and elsewhere when the United Nations themselves are responsible for the worst situation in Iraq? It's part of my job to bring to public consciousness the incredible suffering of Iraqi society. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central justified the sanctions in a letter to Mr. Richard Wilkins of Bow as highlighting the terrible excesses of Saddam Hussein's regime. Mr. Wilkins replied: Surely the opposite is the case? Sanctions make it impossible for Iraqis and the world to say what suffering is caused by the regime and what is attributable to sanctions. They have clouded the issue in a way which is potentially dangerous. Furthermore, are we to accept the suffering and death of the people of Iraq merely to 'highlight' the wickedness of the regime? It is shocking that this appears to be part of the matrix of Government decision making in this matter. I think that Mr. Wilkins is right in that argument and that my hon. Friend the Minister is wrong.

The oil-for-food deal is supposed to be $2 billion every six months, but, as Kofi Annan made clear, some essential humanitarian supplies have not been approved while others have not arrived. The deal simply does not meet the minimum needs of the Iraqi people. Only once in the 12-month operation of the oil-for-food deal have the Iraqis received the full monthly ration planned under the accord. In any case, the complete ration is full of carbohydrates and poor in protein, and usually lasts less than three weeks.

In the United Nations sanctions committee, the United States has almost singlehandedly blackballed scores of contracts on minor points for no apparent reason. Thirty per cent. of the money in the oil-for-food deal is siphoned off in reparations and goes to pay many exaggerated claims. For example, United States oil companies are greedily claiming millions and Iraq has no option if it wants the food money for its people.

The programme serves the US, as it mutes humanitarian concern while continuing to deny Iraq access to its oil wealth to solve its social and economic problems. However, the United States has blocked real humanitarian improvements to the programme, even those suggested by other Security Council members, the United Nations Secretariat, the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. It has blocked, with the tame accord of our Government, the proposal to double the oil-for-food programme.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not, in simplistic soundbites, heap all the blame on Saddam Hussein, tyrant that we all know he is. The west also has choices in this matter and it has chosen the cynical game of targeting children and the sick. It may not have intended that initially, but it is now locked into it by American political will. It is morally wrong and our ethical Government should abandon their support for it.

I read to the House one last quotation. In the case of Iraq and other repressive regimes … it is clear that many of the problems arise from a small elite who hold power within the economic, social and particularly military strata of the country. Therefore, where the international community has expressed disapproval of the actions of these regimes, it is the elite whom sanctions should target. This would improve the sanctions instrument, both for moral and humane reasons—those who are responsible should face the consequences—but also for practical reasons, since elites are able to cushion themselves from the deprivations suffered as a result of blanket sanctions, and the regime is unlikely to change. My view is therefore that the UN should examine alternative sanctions instruments, such as suspending international air links into and out of the country concerned, freezing assets held in overseas bank accounts and a ban on the granting of visas for overseas travel, study etc. These measures might hit people who are not members of the regime, even perhaps the opposition, but they would not increase the suffering of the millions of innocent citizens as blanket trade and economic sanctions do. That letter was written on 3 December 1996 by the now Secretary of State for International Development. I agree with her. It is time that the west stopped its war on Iraqi children.

1.46 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Four years ago, like every other visitor to Baghdad, I was taken to the Amariya and I saw the result of the use of cruise missiles. When one sees carbonated bodies against concrete, it is easy to understand the effect on people of a missile attack by the world's most sophisticated weapons. Before any proposal of that nature goes ahead, that matter ought to be discussed fully in the House of Commons.

1.47 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) on the way in which he introduced his debate. I fully respect his humanitarian concerns and his long record of achievement in that respect. Therefore, no part of my response will question his personal integrity. However, there was one element that should have been in his speech. Given his concern for justice and equity, which has been so much a part of his political career, I am a little surprised that it was not in his speech.

Whenever we discuss Iraq, we need to recognise the nature of the regime that has existed there in recent years. The regime led by Saddam Hussein is the most brutal dictatorship that has existed. It has turned regularly against its own people. Let us put on record, so that my hon. Friend's speech can be seen in a broader context, some of the events that have been rightly attributed to Saddam Hussein. This is a regime which has used chemical weapons against its own people. It is a unique regime—viciously unique—in that respect. It is a regime which turned against the marsh Arabs seven years ago, literally slaughtering thousands of people. It is a regime which turned against the Kurds in northern Iraq, again slaughtering tens of thousands of people. It is a regime which, as we have seen recently, executed more than 1,000 prisoners simply because they did not wholly and totally support Saddam Hussein. The regime has an abuse of human rights record that is sadly second to none. It attacked without any provocation one of its neighbours, Kuwait, and caused it personal, humanitarian and environmental damage that, again, is without precedent in the middle east.

My hon. Friend's humanitarian concerns are well known, but let us not forget Saddam Hussein's record in his treatment of his own people and of other people in the middle east. It would not be any exaggeration to say that any one part of that record shows Saddam Hussein to be a criminal, who has gone against all known and understood human values. His record is clear.

My hon. Friend argued that sanctions have not worked. I know that that was his argument because he would not argue against sanctions in principle. He and I are long supporters of sanctions in certain circumstances and he had a tremendous record in arguing for sanctions in relation to apartheid in South Africa. I congratulate him on his stand on that issue. The question is one not of principle, but of whether the sanctions have worked to achieve the objectives.

Let us consider the record, in particular that of the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq, which was heavily criticised by my hon. Friend. We are dealing with a dictatorship which has not only the record to which I have referred, but is capable of developing weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. One does not have to take more than a cursory glance at the daily Hansard to know that my hon. Friend has rightly fought a strong campaign for the disarmament of all those weapons.

Saddam Hussein had all that capacity: nuclear, biological and chemical. That weaponry was a threat not just to the middle east, but, as we know from the dictator's record, to his own people in Iraq. I do not believe for a moment that my hon. Friend would wish that arsenal to be in the hands of someone so evil and so reckless. UNSCOM's work has been able to rid Iraq of more weapons of mass destruction than the whole of the Gulf war achieved.

I am sure that my hon. Friend does not demur for a moment from that objective—the need to get rid of those weapons. He need only talk to people in the other regimes in the middle east. If UNSCOM were withdrawn and were not allowed to do its job, other regimes and peoples in the middle east would not sleep easily while Saddam Hussein had an arsenal and the capacity and will to use it.

Once a dictator has tasted blood, as Saddam Hussein did in Kuwait and against his own people, the ruthless wish to hold on to and to extend power will come through again and again. Every dictator throughout history has shown that insatiable thirst. The policy of appeasement—saying that UNSCOM is not working and therefore we must withdraw it—is immensely dangerous for the middle east and for the people of Iraq. UNSCOM must be allowed to get on with its work. We have made that abundantly clear and we will continue to do so.

My hon. Friend is a strong advocate of the United Nations and he is right to be because the UN features in the aims of our political party. We share a socialist commitment towards international organisations. If we allow the UN to be undermined by this dictator, we might as well say that that is the end of the objectives that we share with the UN. A defeat on these issues would be a devastating blow to the UN's legitimacy and credibility.

My hon. Friend referred to the end of sanctions. I was surprised by one or two of his arguments. The position is simple: compliance brings the end of sanctions—no more, no less.

Mr. Cohen

The United States has never said that.

Mr. Fatchett

My hon. Friend says that the US position is different. It is on the record that the United States has said that compliance means the end of sanctions. I suggest that if my hon. Friend wants to make a real contribution to the middle east, he should send Saddam Hussein a copy of any document urging him to comply with sanctions because all we ask is that Iraq gives up its capability in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, a point to which my hon. Friend has referred time and again and on which he has campaigned.

My hon. Friend argues that our approach does not include a concern for the people of Iraq and that we have turned our back on them. Let us again consider the record. Since 1991, the United Kingdom has unilaterally contributed more than £94 million in direct aid to the people of Iraq. We are involved in mine clearing and, through Save the Children Fund, we are working with children on water and sanitation projects. We are involved in aid to Iraq and we are trying to make a contribution towards the well-being of the ordinary people of Iraq.

My hon. Friend says that sanctions have been imposed against food and medicine. That is factually incorrect. There are no sanctions on food and medicine and we must not fall into the trap of believing other people's propaganda. If we consider the resolutions, we find that it is not true that there are sanctions on food and medicine.

My hon. Friend says that the oil-for-food approach is not working; I give him three facts to take away from this debate. First, the approach is not working because Saddam Hussein rejected it in August 1991 and has subsequently looked for every opportunity to divert resources towards not the people of Iraq, but his own programme of weapons of mass destruction. My hon. Friend is dealing with a dictator who kills his own people. Does my hon. Friend honestly believe that Saddam Hussein will give greater priority to Iraq's people than to his programme of weapons of mass destruction?

Secondly, we know where some of the money has gone. There is no more hideous element in the stand-off with UNSCOM than the dictatorship's claim, while thousands of Iraq's people starve, that it cannot allow UNSCOM into 71 presidential palaces. Is my hon. Friend, a keen supporter of equity and justice, going to say that one dictator needs 71 presidential palaces? Surely, on the resolutions argument, he should be saying that the money should be spent on the people of Iraq and not on the vanity and palaces of Saddam Hussein.

Thirdly, it is the United Kingdom which has taken an active part in ensuring that we open the process of oil for food. We want the system to work. A UN report will be published on 30 January on the matter. If we can make the system more efficient and get more money to Iraq's people, we shall do so. It is not our objective to damage the ordinary people of Iraq, but we can help them only if the Iraqi dictatorship allows it and does not divert the money towards its own purpose—to the elite groups to which my hon. Friend referred—and towards the weapons of mass destruction programme.

We debate Iraq on many occasions. I have no hesitation in concluding this debate by saying that there is no greater single humanitarian concern for Iraq's people than that they should have a change of Government and of approach in Iraq. If we can bring openness, pluralism and democracy to Iraq, we shall make the single greatest contribution to its well-being. If Iraq looked after and cared for its own people and was not going to threaten its neighbours, that would be a real humanitarian contribution. That is part of our ethical foreign policy and that is the objective towards which we work. We are not going to appease; we are going to stand up for our principles. That is the popular and sensible way in which to make progress.

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

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

Back to