§ 4.4 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)
My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement a reply being given by my honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to a Private Notice Question 902 being asked in another place on the United Kingdom forces in Lebanon. The Statement is as follows:
"Fighting broke out on 2nd February in Beirut between the Lebanese armed forces and the Shia Militia Amal. The fighting escalated on 3rd and 4th February and continues today. Heavy Lebanese casualties have been reported.
"The Lebanese government resigned on 5th February but continues as a caretaker adminstration. President Gemayel has begun consultations on the formation of a new government and has issued an appeal to all parties in Lebanon to resume reconciliation talks.
"The British contingent of the multi-national force has not been the target of any deliberate attacks. Stray rounds have landed on or near the contingent's base. The contingent has suffered one minor casualty.
"We are today consulting our partners in the multi-national force and will keep the situation under close review. We wish to see an early end to the violence and bloodshed, an effective ceasefire, and more vigorous efforts by the government of Lebanon and all the parties to settle their differences by negotiation.
"Against the background I have described we have to judge with other partners whether the MNF can still help in this process. But we do not intend to withdraw our contingent precipitately."
That is the Statement.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. The developing situation and the increased fighting to which the noble Lord referred are a cause of concern to all of us. I know that we are all glad to, learn that talks are now taking place between the Government, the United States administration, France and Italy, who are the other participants in the multi-national force.
Can the noble Lord say whether any consideration is being given to asking for a special meeting of the Security Council to discuss the matter in view of the implications of the crisis for neighbouring countries, and indeed for the peace of a much wider area than the Middle East? Can he comment on two further points? First, can he say what is the reaction of the Government to the comment of Mr. Dany Chamoun, which has been reported in the newspapers—including yesterday's Sunday Times—that he believes there will be a major war within a few days in the Lebanon? Have the Government any evidence for believing that that prediction has any certain grounds? Secondly, does not the noble Lord agree that the withdrawal of British troops from the Lebanon now becomes an even more urgent necessity as it is essential we should not become involved in a full scale civil war?
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, we join with the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement. Can the Government tell us what they are doing to keep continuously under review the possibility of mounting a United Nations' force in the Lebanan—a force from the medium and smaller members? We should like to 903 hear of continuous diplomatic activity in the capitals and in New York towards that end. We do not hear of it at the moment.
Have the Government noted yesterday's 40,000-strong demonstration by the so-called Peace Now movement in Jerusalem, which is said to have been the largest in the history of the state of Israel, in favour of the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon and of other cognate aims?
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, can we have an assurance from the Government that, after the consultations mentioned by the noble Lord, the Cabinet will act on its own unfettered and independent judgment, as the elected Government of this nation, in deciding the future of the small British contingent in the Western four-power force?
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords. If I may reply first to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, the responsibility to convene a United Nations meeting of, say, the Security Council would rest in the first instance with the Government of the Lebanon, and they have not so far indicated any intention of doing that. Naturally we shall keep in touch with their views on this matter; but, as I say, for the moment they show no signs of so doing.
As for the prospects of a major war in the Lebanon, to which the noble Lord referred, I cannot hide from your Lordships that the position there is a very grave one, but we do not feel that the situation is as grave as has been suggested in some reports lately. We hope that with good sense on all sides the cataclysm which has been forecast will not happen; and, indeed, taking the wider view, we believe that it will not.
As for unilateral withdrawal of our soldiers—and perhaps I may reply, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, who raised a similar point—we believe that it is necessary for us to consider the future of our forces there in consultation with our partners in the multinational force. I think that it would be wrong for the United Kingdom to initiate some form of precipitate withdrawal, and we most certainly will not be doing that. As the Statement says, we have today begun discussions—or rather continued discussions, because we have been in touch with them throughout the time that our forces have been there—with our colleagues in the multi-national force to try to chart a new way forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, also asked me about diplomatic activity. I have referred to some of the diplomatic activity already. I am not sure that it is always particularly productive to discuss in detail the nature and the kind of diplomatic activity that is going on, but the noble Lord may be assured that we are ensuring that our views are known in all relevant quarters and, likewise, that we know the views of the others concerned in this matter. Certainly we noted the Israeli demonstration to which the noble Lord referred. Naturally we take an interest in these matters, but the decisions for Israeli action, of course, rest with the Israeli, and not with the United Kingdom, Government.
§ Lord Shinwell
My Lords, despite the Minister's doubts about whether there will be a resumption of civil war in the Lebanon, it will be noted that he is unable to furnish any guarantee. Indeed, it is not at all unlikely that there will be a resumption of civil war—in which, by the way, the Israelis would not be participating. I hope that note will be taken of that.
What I want to know is this. This may be a simple domestic question which is frequently asked in other contexts in your Lordships' House; but, first of all, will the Minister say what expenditure has been involved in the presence of our small contingent in the Lebanon? What does it cost this country to indulge in that gesture? In all the circumstances, irrespective of what the Security Council may decide—and, with great respect to my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, I must say that I regard mention of the Security Council as completely irrelevant. It is as useless as ever. I hardly think that it is on my noble friend's intellectual level to refer to that possibility—or, rather, impossibility.
To come back to the point, what is it costing this country to have that small contingent there? In all the circumstances, and in view of the fact—and it is an undoubted fact—that the members of the British force are getting no experience or training there and are in danger of being assaulted in that area, is it not better that they are withdrawn?
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, that the British forces there are serving no useful purpose. On the contrary, the British forces there have played a useful role by patrolling and by providing a guard for the ceasefire talks. As I have said, they are still there and playing a useful role. I think that it is too early to say that there is no such role for them in the future.
The noble Lord also referred to the imminent prospect—or probability, as I believe he thought—of a major civil war in that country. But, apart from the United Kingdom force, there are of course several thousand other troops forming part of the multinational force in Beirut, added to which, of course, there is the United Nations force situated in the south of Lebanon. So, as I said earlier, I believe that the prospect of a major civil war in the Lebanon is not as likely as some have suggested.
The noble Lord also asked about the cost of our forces in that country. I have a figure of about £2 million, being the cost of the United Kingdom contribution to the multi-national force during the year 1983–84.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, may I ask a very short question which I hope will have the approval of my noble friend Lord Shinwell? Over the past two days there has been some talk about the possible reconvening of the Geneva talks. Is there any validity in that? Is it possible that, in spite of the worsening atmosphere and climate in the Lebanon, these talks might be reconvened?
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, there is of course no government as such in the Lebanon at the present time. The reconvening of such talks would be for the new government, as and when they come to office. It 905 seems to me that the earlier talks in Geneva made some useful progress, and, if there is more progress to be made, therefore, I think that it would be a good thing for the Geneva talks to be reconvened. But I am certain that it will be necessary for this to be decided by the incoming government in the Lebanon, and I hope that this will be before very long.
I should like to also refer again to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, who poured scorn on the idea of a United Nations initiative in this area. I must say that the United Kingdom Government do not take that view. We think that there might well be a useful role for the United Nations to play in this particular situation, but in the first instance it is for the government of the Lebanon to ask for that.