HL Deb 08 February 1984 vol 447 cc1151-5

3.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, we have been considering closely and urgently the situation in Lebanon, where conditions and the prospects for achieving reconciliation have deteriorated sharply in the past few days. The Lebanese Government has resigned and factional fighting has broken out again on a large scale.

"The British contingent to the multi-national force has been performing two important tasks: carrying out street patrols in Beirut and, at the request of all the parties, providing an impartial guard for the ceasefire talks. With the recent deterioration in the situation, it has become impossible for it to fulfil this role, and the danger to the contingent has been greatly heightened.

"In these difficult circumstances, we have been in close touch with our MNF partners. And the Government have decided that our troops should be moved to the Royal Fleet Auxilliary 'Reliant' which is stationed off the Lebanese coast and remain there until the situation becomes clearer. The House will be glad to know that the major part of this redeployment has already been successfully completed.

"The British contingent have earned a high reputation among all Lebanese as an impartial force. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that they have carried out their tasks in Beirut with exemplary courage and efficiency. They have played an important part in contributing to stability in the Beirut area and in providing an opportunity for political reconciliation. It is a tragedy that this opportunity has not been seized.

"We continue to have very prominently in our minds the safety of British residents in the Beirut area. I am glad to be able to report that I have received no reports of any casualties. For those British residents who wish to leave, appropriate arrangements are being put in hand. British Embassy staff are safe and well and their position is being kept under close review. I would like to pay tribute to the British Ambassador in Beirut, Mr. David Miers, and his staff who have been performing their duties under very difficult circumstances.

"The need for the restoration of stability, sovereignty and independence to Lebanon remains of the highest importance. We shall stay in close touch with our MNF partners, with the Lebanese Government and with all those who can help in this process. If needless bloodshed is to be avoided, a supreme effort must now be made by all the parties to settle their differences by compromise".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that Statement. We welcome the decision to withdraw the British contingent, and we are relieved that no casualties have been suffered—although we deeply commiserate with those countries which suffered serious losses. We endorse the tribute to the British contingent, repeated by the noble Lord, for its courage and efficiency.

This decision, which we have been urging on the Government for some time, is surely right in view of the gravely worsening position in Lebanon and of the fact that it would be disastrous for a small British force to be exposed in the midst of a full-scale civil war. We support also the comments made about our ambassador and his staff. Can the noble Lord tell the House how many British citizens there are at present in Beirut and in the Lebanon, respectively?

In this dark and menacing scene, do Her Majesty's Government see any prospect of improvement? What negotiations are being planned to alleviate tension in the Middle East? Do the four powers engaged in the multi-national force propose any new initiative now that the force has withdrawn? May I return to my question of Monday and ask whether there are plans for a reference of this matter to the Security Council, especially in view of the United Nations force in Lebanon?

Finally, may I say how deeply we all sympathise with the ordinary people of Lebanon in the terrible suffering which has been inflicted upon them.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, we, too, should like to thank the Minister for repeating this rather sad Statement. The United States decision gradually to withdraw their Marines from Beirut, followed by the withdrawal from the town of the British contingent and, no doubt, shortly, of the other participants in the MNF, however necessary, is clearly a serious blow to Western influence in the Middle East. Without indulging in any kind of Schadenfreude, I may say that from the moment the Israelis took the fatal decision to invade the South Lebanon we on these Benches were pretty certain that it was likely to end in tears. But, of course, the question now is how to pick up the bits.

May I ask the Government this question: Assuming the early resignation of President Gemayel, which I suppose is probable, might not the best thing be to encourage agreement on the part of the Lebanese Moslems generally to accept some non-controversial, non-Falange Maronite character as a temporary president who would try to form a government in which there might be a definite Moslem majority? The only alternative seems to be a continuation and even an intensification of the civil war, resulting, presumably, in the creation of a number of statelets, for the most part under Syrian domination, and no end to Israeli/Syrian tension.

Would the Government not further agree that any long-term pacification of the area surely now depends on some kind of super-power understanding or agreement? Supposing, for instance, that the United States, more especially after the probable denunciation of the Israeli-Lebanese agreement, took the initiative in inviting the Soviet Union to take part, along with Syria, Israel and others concerned, in resumed talks at Geneva, might it not be possible to establish some really effective United Nations force in Southern Lebanon, thus enabling, or even obliging, Syria to withdraw her troops? Perhaps the Government would like to reflect on such a possibility.

For the rest, I would simply join with the Government and the Leader of the Opposition in expressing our deep appreciation of the conduct in very difficult circumstances of our own small contingent in Beirut. Their efficiency and their dignity have been universally admired, and we, too, should like to take this opportunity of offering our warm congratulations to them.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, there are, we believe, about 300, or perhaps 400, British nationals in or around Beirut, and doubtless more outside Beirut; but, of course, they are not in the same dangerous circumstances as those in the city itself. As for the future possibility of engaging the attention of the United Nations on this matter, as I think I said when I repeated an earlier Statement in your Lordships' House on Monday of this week, it is for the Lebanese themselves to initiate any formal approach to the Security Council. But I can tell the noble Lord that we are in touch with the Secretariat of the United Nations to see how it may be possible to take this forward. We believe, as again I think I said earlier this week, that a United Nations effort in this area would be desirable, and we shall support any realistic proposals that may come forward. That really is in essence how we sec the future.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, in the first instance clearly we must ensure that we complete the redeployment of our troops back to the RFA "Reliant" and then see what assistance we can give to the civilians, as I mentioned a moment ago.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in view of the courage and determination, to which noble Lords in all quarters of the House have paid tribute, shown by the British contingent in singularly unpleasant and dangerous circumstances, may I ask my noble friend whether, as a Ministry of Defence Minister, he will arrange for urgent consideration to be given to the award of a special decoration to members of this contingent, who, in the opinion of most of us, have very fully earned it? Perhaps also they could have a little leave.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, they will doubtless get the latter in due course. As for the former, I am aware that consideration is being given to that already.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister realise the vast difference between the Statement he made a few moments ago and the statements he made in reply to my questions on Monday? When I asked him the simple question whether he could guarantee that there would be no further turbulence, less civil war if possible, in the area, he dismissed it just like that, as if it was of no consequence. When I asked him whether the Government would come to a decision to remove our troops from that area, recognising that they had rendered very useful service, which of course the noble Lord endorsed, he also shelved it on one side. Obviously, I am not suggesting that he was misleading the House on Monday. He probably was not aware of the facts, or probably the Government had not made up their mind. But there is no reason why he should have refused my suggestion of possible further turbulence in the area. Probably I knew more about it than he did himself. It does sometimes happen that those outside are better acquainted with the situation than are those associated in particular with the Foreign Office.

I endorse entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has said about the award of some special decoration to our troops who were there. Of course they were engaged in a very useful occupation, otherwise doing little or nothing, fearsome of possible casualties, which overcame many other peace-loving people in the area. Of course something should be done. I think the whole story might be told sometime, not at present but later on, about what our contingent suffered in that area. I think that is the very least the Government can do. At any rate, it might relieve us of the necessity of indicting the Government fur their particular failure in this connection.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord suggested that he knew more than I did about this matter; the noble Lord knows more than I do about practically every matter, so that that is hardly surprising. As for the comparison between what I have said today and what I said earlier this week, I can only tell the noble Lord that circumstances have been changing very swiftly indeed in this matter, and the answers I gave to the noble Lord earlier this week reflected the situation in the Government's view at that time.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, would the noble Lord give us an assurance that if public communication breaks down the Foreign Office will keep the relatives of members of the Embassy very closely informed? Mr. David Miers and his wife are close friends of mine and they have three young children at school in England. I know that sometimes in the heat of the moment it is forgotten to pass on much-wanted information about relatives in places of danger.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can happily give that assurance, and I can also assure the noble Baroness that we remain in full communication with our mission in Beirut.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, is it not a fact that any member of the United Nations can bring any situation to the Security Council if it so desires, and therefore there is no need, necessarily, for us to wait for the Lebanese to bring it to the attention of the Security Council if we thought it would be a good thing to do it ourselves?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord is of course the greatest expert in United Nations procedures; indeed, I believe he himself drafted many of them. It may well be that he has stolen a march on me in that matter. Clearly it would be right in these circumstances, if not in all, for us to know the views of the Lebanese themselves before this matter was initiated.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, there has been a remarkable degree of unanimity in the welcome given to the Statement repeated by the noble Lord. He emphasised that what has been done has been done in consultation with other members of the multi-national force. Would that consultation extend to the possible use of warships off the coast of Lebanon? Would the noble Lord not agree that if any one of the members of the multi-national force start using their war power off the coast, it is not going to help the situation in the future?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the different contributors to the multi-national force, as it was, in Beirut of course have to look after their own forces in their own way; but I can assure the noble Lord that we are in close consultation with all the other members.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I think it best that when an Opposition has been urging the Government to do something, and the Government do it, then the Opposition should make their remarks as brief as possible. This is such an occasion. Is there any news of what France and Italy plan to do?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we understand that both France and Italy are considering their position, but I also understand that no announcement has yet been made by either country.

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