HC Deb 24 March 2000 vol 346 cc1286-94

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

2.31 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

From Reuters, Vatican City, 21 March 2000:

Pope John Paul yesterday blasted UN sanctions on Iraq during a Holy Year ceremony attended by its Christian patriarch, Raphael Bidawid. The sons and daughters of the Church in Iraq, and all the Iraqi people who are being so severely tried by the continuing international embargo, never cease to be present in my thoughts," the pontiff said. I assure all those who are suffering, especially the women, children and elderly, of my prayerful support. The Pope has often criticised the use of sanctions and said many Iraqis have died because of the lack of medicines. Bidawid, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, was to conduct a service in his church's eastern rite later yesterday. The Pope had wanted to visit the Old Testament city of Ur, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, in Iraq in February but was not allowed by the Baghdad government. It said the visit was not possible because of UN sanctions and the no-fly zone over the country. That view is shared by Denis Halliday, by Hans von Sponeck and by Jutta Burghadt—the senior, experienced international officials of the United Nations on the spot. It is the view shared by Save the Children, for whom Andrea Ledward gave an excellent briefing to a number of honourable colleagues in the House of Commons on 29 February 2000, a copy of which is with the Foreign Office.

It is a view shared by the United Nations Children's Fund, outlined in its document—also in the possession of the Foreign Office—"Child and Maternal Mortality Survey". It is a view that is encapsulated in "The Water Tragedy", published by the United Nations. Its cover says: The sophisticated water installations of Iraq, wholly dependent on spare parts from outside the country, have been laid waste by the years of neglect since the Gulf war. The result has been a catastrophic decline in public health. Christine Aziz, Evaristo Oliveira and Jost Widmer look at the lingering consequences of the war for Iraq and the hopes raised by the UN's "oil-for-food" resolution. That document, too, is in the possession of the Foreign Office.

On 20 March 2000, at column 422W, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen)—I am glad to see him here—asked about the cost of Operation Desert Fox and subsequent operations in Iraq, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence mentioned figures of £35 million. The full reply is in the Official Report. I am deeply concerned at the technical report from Mark Hillier from London. He says that experts have said that the oil-for-food programme had "failed to establish and support a sustainable oil production system in the north" … The experts warn that, without telemetry, operational communications and adequate water-treatment spares, "the possibility of irreversible damage to the reservoir of this super-giant field is now imminent". The super-giant field in question is the great oilfield at Kirkuk.

Mark Hillier reports that the experts suggest that about $100 million per year might need to be spent on horizontal drilling projects that, along with 3D seismic acquisition and reservoir simulation, might help to boost ultimate field recoverability to between 35 per cent. and 50 per cent. from the 15-to-20 per cent. range that now looks likely. The squandering of valuable, finite resources is absolutely unimaginable.

The report adds: The Iraqi Drilling Company lacks bentonite so it is impossible to make a heavy drilling mud and kill the well to conserve the reservoir, the experts said. I wish to concentrate on the visit that George Joffé and I made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I set down our proposals in a letter to my right hon. Friend and I have given a copy to the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who will reply to the debate. George Joffé was the deputy director of Chatham house and that fact is evidence of the seriousness of the critics. I wrote that we felt that there are two areas in which adjustment to present policy should be made, in order to mitigate the effects of the current sanctions regime, without calling into question the policy agreed by the Security Council. The purpose of both sets of proposals is also to try to counter the very adverse physical and intellectual consequences of the sanctions regime amongst the Iraqi population without providing encouragement to the regime itself. You will recall that the underlying thrust of our comments was that current policy, quite apart from discrediting the sanctions regime and its major Western supporters in Arab eyes generally—whatever their governments may claim—is also stimulating extremely hostile attitudes within Iraq and outside the actual structure of the regime itself. This, we feel, augurs ill for future relationships between Iraq, its neighbouring states and the wider world, once the current regime disappears. (1) The first batch of measures we would like to propose deal with issues of public health. I realise that this is a contentious area, where there is disagreement between governments in the Security Council and United Nations over the actual situation.

  1. (a) I do not, however, think that there is much doubt about the fact that the public health situation is very poor. The major cause of this is the dilapidated state of the water supply and sewage systems. These systems require infrastructure repair and equipment replacement, as well as basic inputs for treatment purposes.
  2. (b) The second component of such an approach would be to improve access to immunisation and vaccination facilities, as well as permitting greater access to anaesthetics and general drugs. I am aware that official sources claim that considerable supplies are held in Iraq, but I also know that other sources dispute this.
In principle, the sanctions regime permits this, since both reflect "humanitarian purposes". In reality, there are often massive delays in authorisation through the Sanctions Committee because of "dual use" considerations, leading, on occasion, to rejections of the requests. This is surely an area in which a change of approach is essential and would not outrage the principles of the sanctions regime, since it only requires a change in emphasis. Could the British government not use its good offices to soften the rigour frequently expressed in Washington, on the basis that this would be an appropriate investment in the future without allowing the regime to renew its biological or chemical weapons programmes? (2) The second area in which I would like to suggest a modification of policy is in that of human and intellectual contact. Even though intellectual material is not expressly excluded by the sanctions regime, in reality, Iraq has been out of intellectual contact with the wider world for almost a decade. The postal services with Iraq are erratic and discriminatory—materials sent are often returned for no discernible reason—and the Sanctions Committee in New York is, to say the least, extremely conservative in its willingness to allow such material through.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a lack of transparency and accountability concerning the decisions of the sanctions committee and what this country's representatives are doing on that committee? Is it not a scandal, for example, that money from the oil for food programme can be handed out to the oil companies, but is held up for projects that would help children in Iraq?

Mr. Dalyell

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend, and I agree with everything that he says. It is precisely those considerations that lead to the greatest resentment against Britain and the United States not only in Iraq but in the streets of most of the Arab world.

I undertook to give five minutes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who has been so active in this cause.

2.41 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I rise briefly to support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) because he has been a persistent and principled critic of this policy. I rise only because I have heard the Foreign Office reply many times and, if the Minister is to deliver the same answer, I must tell in him advance that it is wholly incredible and untrue.

We are told, for example, that the policy is necessary because one country has invaded another and has weapons of mass destruction. Israel has weapons of mass destruction and has occupied the southern Lebanon. Indonesia has weapons of mass destruction, which we supplied, and killed 200,000 people in East Timor. Turkey has weapons of mass destruction and occupies northern Cyprus, and the Government's policy is that Turkey should be admitted to the European Union. There is no credibility whatever in that argument.

The second argument, which I know that we shall hear because the Minister and the Prime Minister have given it before, is that the entire responsibility for the terrible health crisis and the tragedy in Iraq lies with Saddam Hussein. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow said, that is not the view of senior United Nations officials who have no connection with Saddam Hussein but who were in Iraq to do a job that they were denied the opportunity to do because they knew that the policy was wrong.

I hope that the Minister understands that the charge against the British and American Governments is that they are applying sanctions that amount to genocide. I use that word advisedly and with great gravity and regret. I repeat: the policy of the British and American Governments amounts to genocide. It is no good talking about the international community because it shares the view that my hon. Friend has put forward with such strength.

Whatever reply the Minister gives, if it is line with what he said before, it is not true and it is not believed anywhere other than in Washington, which dictates the policy that this Government follow. The time has come to take a little more notice of people of the quality of John Pilger, Felicity Arbuthnot and my hon. Friends the Members for Linlithgow, for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) and for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway), who have made it their business to draw to the attention of the British people the truth of the tragedy and the reason why it has occurred.

This is a short debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow properly put forward his argument, but it will not end with another ministerial reply drafted in the Foreign Office but written in Washington because it is really a big, long-term debate about Britain's relations with the middle east and the world and the prospects of the United Nations surviving this century, when it has increasingly been sidelined and dominated by one super-power.

2.44 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain)

After the recent media debate on Iraq and sanctions, I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), whom I congratulate on securing this debate.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend's long, genuine concern about the suffering of the Iraqi people. Unlike some critics of the United Nations sanctions, he has consistently argued with sincerity, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), and has avoided the petty, personalising attacks of the kind that we have seen recently. I do not question their motives, and I know that they do not question mine. I want to see the long, bitter suffering of the Iraqi people end as soon as my colleagues do, even if we differ about how to achieve that.

I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield that this speech was not written in Washington; it was written on my computer, although drafted by officials.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow has proposed change in two specific areas—public health and contact between Iraq and the British people. I welcome these ideas, which are entirely consistent with our thinking, and with UN Security Council resolution 1284. We can make progress, as my hon. Friend suggests.

Last year, Britain put a great deal of effort into piloting the resolution through the Security Council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield speaks of the international community. The entire international community has backed that resolution. It is the official policy of the international community and of the UN, and it reflects Britain's long-standing and deep-seated commitment to the disarmament of Iraq and the well-being of the Iraqi people.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, in his recent report to the Security Council, was hopeful that effective implementation of the resolution's humanitarian provisions would further enhance the impact of the oil-for-food programme on the humanitarian situation. With the oil price high, and Iraq's output steady—at around 2 million barrels a day—potentially $12 billion could be available this year for that humanitarian programme. That is big money. Critics of sanctions seem wilfully to ignore the real culprit in the denial of humanitarian relief, which is readily available under the UN's programme.

Talking of critics, can I put on record the facts—as opposed to the myths—about the recent humanitarian flight to Baghdad planned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway)? I wanted the flight to go ahead. It could have done so. Contrary to the rather bizarre accusations that I have seen, I did not block this flight to deliver more medicines to Iraq. The UK Government did not prevent the flight, nor did the US Government. Nor did the UN—in fact, it gave its specific approval on 8 March through the Sanctions Committee.

Preparations were proceeding smoothly until about a week before the flight was due to go, when my officials learned that the intention was to take 207 people, including many journalists and others who could not possibly have been assisting a mercy mission. The organisers were informed that the UN Sanctions Committee would not have agreed to the flight because the number of passengers called into question the humanitarian nature of the flight. We suggested that the number be brought down to under 30, and the organisers agreed to this. We did not specify who those people should be, but did seek further details, as required by New York.

I specifically promised to secure the agreement of the Sanctions Committee, and, indeed, this was secured. To my astonishment, the flight was suddenly cancelled. Only the organisers know why; perhaps the propaganda value of a late cancellation, mischievously ascribed to me, was more advantageous.

Resolution 1284 gives the UN a new platform for its dealings with Iraq. Three months on, there has been welcome progress on implementation. Hans Blix has taken up his post as executive chairman of the new arms body, UNMOVIC. Yuli Vorontsov has been appointed as the high-level co-ordinator for Kuwaiti issues. We hope that he will be able to bring his massive experience to bear on the intransigents in Iraq who are preventing progress on efforts to determine the fate of more than 600 prisoners of war still missing since the Gulf war.

Rightly, the immediate focus of resolution 1284 has been on its humanitarian provisions. I should remind the House that these are unconditional. There is no longer any limit on the volume of oil that Iraq can sell to fund the humanitarian programme. The UN's procedures have been simplified and speeded up.

Let me also set the record straight on our handling of contracts in the Sanctions Committee in New York. That Committee exists to ensure that the resolutions are fully complied with. It is therefore obliged to do all that it can to prevent the supply to Iraq of any goods prohibited under the resolutions. It also makes many of the decisions on contracts under the humanitarian programme, and therefore has to meet the humanitarian imperative too. That is not an easy balancing act, and we think that we get it about right.

We are not prepared to abandon the scrutiny of contracts, although virtually all the other Committee members do, for whatever reason. However, nor do we wish to hold up or block the delivery of vital supplies, whether that means medicines or parts for Iraq's oil industries—including the spares to which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow referred.

We put on hold only 1 per cent. of all contracts. There is no way that such a tiny proportion can be responsible for the undoubted suffering in Iraq. Critics should also acknowledge the problem of dual-use goods: for example, chlorine has a bona fide use in water treatment projects, but is also a constituent of mustard gas, which was used in the attack on Halabja, so it is absolutely right that we should know when and how it is going to be used in Iraq. We are pressing for improved United Nations monitoring of dual-use goods inside Iraq, which would reduce that percentage still further. We will continue to urge all those on the committee—I mean all—to take a similarly balanced approach.

Security Council resolution 1284 provides for the suspension of sanctions if Iraq co-operates. That that new opportunity is enshrined in a British-drafted Security Council resolution is a further example of our willingness to think imaginatively about the challenge posed by Iraq. Suspension is available, if Iraq wants it, and the Iraqi Government know that we are serious in our commitment to suspension. We hope that they will adopt a more co-operative approach than they have done thus far. I urge all those with good contacts or friends in the Iraqi regime to give Baghdad the same message—that it should allow the full implementation of resolution 1284.

Mr. Tony Benn

Is it not a fact that the inspectors were identifying targets that we could later bomb? From an Iraqi point of view, inspection is simply an intelligence operation to enable the Americans to target sites, as and when they decide to resume bombing. That is the problem with the reintroduction of inspectors.

Mr. Hain

The resolution provides for a new inspection regime. The new arrangements are designed specifically to determine whether the Iraqis are developing weapons of mass destruction—as we know they are doing. Throughout his political life, my right hon. Friend has consistently opposed the production of such weapons, which include biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. The Iraqis should have nothing to fear from a fresh arms inspection system. Their criticisms of the old system, to which my right hon. Friend refers, do not apply to the new one.

The recent documentary produced by John Pilger tried to show that sanctions are responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people. That argument has been repeated in the debate. It is a lie propagated by Saddam Hussein and his apologists. Of course the Iraqi people are suffering; that is one of the reasons why the Government invested such energy in a new Security Council resolution. It is a scandal that doctors cannot get the drugs they need to end harrowing pictures from cancer wards. However, the fault lies with the Iraqi Government for failing to order the required medicines and failing to distribute those that they do order.

The latest report by the Secretary-General notes that one quarter of all medical goods delivered to Iraq since the humanitarian programme started have not been distributed: they sit in Government-controlled warehouses. There is a similar story in respect of food. In 1998, the Secretary-General recommended a daily food ration of 2,463 kilocalories, but the Iraqi Government sets its average at just 1,993 kilocalories—less than is provided for—and the latest report notes that Iraq is not ordering enough pulses or dairy products to make up the ration, and that it is not including protein.

The conclusion that we have to reach is that Saddam Hussein is yet again playing politics with suffering. He believes that television pictures of malnourished Iraqi children serve his interests, so he makes sure that there are malnourished children in their thousands to film. Why did John Pilger not film in northern Iraq, where the situation is far better? No one starves and health indicators have actually been improving, yet exactly the same sanctions regime applies there. The difference is that Saddam's writ does not run there. Why do sanctions critics prefer to ignore that inconvenient but crucial fact?

Critics of sanctions are blind to who is to blame. They ignore Saddam Hussein's past record of wars against his neighbours and brutality towards his own people, especially the Kurds and the Shia. Their alternative strategy does not inspire confidence: we are to abandon sanctions and hope for the best; we are to trust Saddam to improve the condition of his people; we are to cross our fingers as he smuggles what he needs to replenish his stock of chemical and biological weapons under cover of normal trade; we are to close our eyes as he redevelops his nuclear capability; and we are to wish his neighbours and the Iraqi people—especially the Kurds and the Shia—the best of luck. That might be a policy that some are prepared to advocate, but it is not one that the Government are prepared to adopt.

Mr. Cohen

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on that point. John Pilger argued in his report that after the first Gulf war, the Kurds and the Shia rose up to take power away from Saddam Hussein and to protect their own interests. They were abandoned by the United States and Britain and were slaughtered en masse. How are we protecting the Kurds and the Shia, given that historical example?

Mr. Hain

I was not a Minister in the then Government and I do not defend what happened. Those people were, indeed, abandoned. That was a big fault line in the policy of that Government. We are a different Government. We support the Kurds. If the protection provided to the Kurds and the Shia under the current policy, as strengthened by the new Security Council resolution, were suddenly withdrawn, as many critics of sanctions seem to suggest, they would again be vulnerable to the same kind of devastating attacks that Saddam Hussein visited upon them in the past.

Mr. Benn

Turkey invaded northern Iraq in pursuit of the Kurds. There is no support in the British Government for the Kurds in their case against Turkey. The argument is simply not credible. I know that the Minister has to finish his speech, but I must tell him that it is not a credible argument.

Mr. Hain

My right hon. Friend has not answered my point. If we abandoned sanctions, as he suggests, what would happen to the Kurds? The same as happened to them last time, under the mustard gas that Saddam Hussein directed at them, and under the other attacks on them. I know that my right hon. Friend, who has been a fervent warrior for human rights throughout his political career and internationally, would not defend Saddam Hussein's consistent behaviour against the Kurds. We want to ensure that they, and the Shia, are protected.

To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow, there is plenty of money available for the drugs that Iraq needs, if only the Iraqi Government would order what is required and deliver it to those in need. That is not an invention by the British Government.

Mr. Dalyell

On delivery, will my hon. Friend get his office to give him the letter of 9 March from Riad El-Taher of Friendship Across Frontiers, which goes into detail on the matter of distribution? Finally, may I ask my hon. Friend at least to reflect on the dangers to the great Kirkuk oilfield?

Mr. Hain

I shall certainly have another look at that, as my hon. Friend suggests. However, there should be a proper recognition of the fact that humanitarian relief in all the forms available is being blocked by the Iraqi regime. I hear no such acknowledgement in the argument during this debate or from critics of sanctions generally.

In his report, Kofi Annan called on the Iraqi Government to ensure adequate funding to cover recurrent costs and provide the framework for the restoration of the public health care system. He called on Baghdad to improve the delivery and administration of drugs for chronic illnesses, and he asked the Iraqi Government to ensure that sufficient quantities of anti-infectious and anti-tuberculosis drugs were ordered and distributed. Why do we not all join in that call?

The new resolution—1284—also encourages member states and international organisations to provide published material of an educational character to Iraq. That addresses another of the points raised.

I wish that the Government in Iraq wanted their people to have free and unrestricted contact with the outside world. That is clearly not the case, but the British Government have no wish to stop the people of this country and of Iraq maintaining the friendships built up when our countries enjoyed better relations.

Many Iraqis still visit Britain. We look forward to the time when those ties can flourish again. Meanwhile, I would encourage those who wish to develop links with their Iraqi counterparts, for example in the fields of education and medicine, to do so.

I return to the central case that I put most strongly to my right hon. and hon. Friends. I should like to hear a credible alternative advanced by the critics of sanctions, short of simply withdrawing, lifting the sanctions, the proposed arms inspection arrangements and the military activity that backs them up when necessary, and letting Saddam Hussein get on with the old policy that he pursued through the 1980s—yes, I acknowledge that that was with western support—disgracefully, when he attacked Iran and was subsequently allowed to attack Kuwait. The west, including Britain and the United States, has a lot for which to apologise. It allowed the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein to reach its current strength. The Tory Government armed him, directly and indirectly.

We have an entirely new policy, which we have driven through. We have helped to get it through the Security Council of the United Nations. The critics of sanctions suggest no coherent alternatives. They would leave Saddam Hussein free to oppress his people, especially the Kurds and the Shia, and to attack neighbours, as he has done in the past.

One of the arguments that the critics of sanctions have to face is that although sanctions have had many consequences, one of them has been the containment of Saddam Hussein's war machine. He has not invaded anyone during the time—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Three o'clock.