HL Deb 15 April 1991 vol 527 cc1267-77

3.30 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the situation in Iraq which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the relief of suffering in Iraq. We are faced with suffering and fear on a huge scale —inside Iraq, on both sides of the border with Turkey, on both sides of the border with Iran, and in the demilitarised zone bordering Kuwait. Each of these areas has its difficult problems: in all of them the needs are formidable.

"Our response has two elements: first, to keep the refugees alive; and, secondly, to create conditions in which they can return home in safety.

"We have given prompt humanitarian help. We airlifted relief supplies to the Turkish and the Iranian Red Crescent Societies. With the United States and France, RAF aircraft have been airdropping supplies into northern Iraq. With the US and Germans we are now engaged in a helicopter airbridge. My right honourable friend has arranged for six more Chinook to deploy to Turkey from the middle of this week, bringing to nine the UK helicopters participating in this effort. We are contributing over £20 million to appeals by the United Nations and other international agencies. This includes the International Committee of the Red Cross which is at present providing the most effective help inside Iraq. Part of this money will go to our own NGOs whom I met this morning.

"We helped bring about Security Council Resolution 688 which requires Iraq to co-operate with the United Nations and other international humanitarian organisations and to stop repression. The Iraqis are receiving UN missions led by the Secretary General's representative, Mr. Suy and by the UN Co-ordinator, Prince Sadruddin.

"At the Special European Council at Luxembourg on 8th April, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister put forward a four-point plan to build on the Resolutions of the Security Council: first, the establishment of temporary safe havens in Iraq, in which UN officials can provide for the basic needs of refugees and monitor their security; secondly, a generous contribution by the EC to the UN and other appeals for funds for humanitarian relief. The Community immediately contributed 150 million ecu; thirdly, apart from food and humanitarian supplies, economic and financial sanctions against Iraq should remain in force until Saddam Hussein's offer of an amnesty is made permanent and the international community is satisfied that persecution of minorities in Iraq has ceased; fourthly, a strict arms embargo against Iraq to remain in force as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.

"We are vigorously pursuing this proposal for safe havens. Our aim is to create places and conditions in which the refugees can feel secure. We are not talking of a territorial enclave, a separate Kurdistan or a permanent UN presence. We support the territorial integrity of Iraq.

"But we have to get these refugees off the mountains. That is the unanimous view of those who have visited the area on behalf of the ODA and the British NGOs with whom I talked this morning. Some refugees are being admitted to places in Turkey and Iran where they can be better cared for. That is welcome, but is not the right answer except temporarily. We should not aim to add a new permanent refugee problem to the others which disfigure the world. The Kurds should be enabled and encouraged to return to their homes, where effective help can be given. They will not do this unless they feel secure. Undertakings such as those made yesterday by the Iraqi Government will not suffice. The UN presence in Iraq has to build up fast and solidly to monitor and help ensure the safety of those whom the Security Council has resolved to help. We share the view of President Bush when he said yesterday: 'We will not tolerate any interference in this massive international relief effort'.

"To help carry the British relief effort forward my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development will visit Turkey and Iran later this week, including the frontier areas."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. The situation in Iraq is, I know, a matter of acute concern to the Government and indeed to us all. The terrible suffering of the Kurdish people must be one of the great tragedies of history. I am sure that looking during the Recess at the pictures on television of their appalling suffering we have felt a sense of helplessness as well as shame. It is not too much to say that the coalition won the war but is losing the peace.

One thing is clear; namely, that there has been a lack of foresight and a grave failure to take concerted action to protect the Kurdish people and the Shi'ite population in the south. What makes the position worse is that the Iraqi people, which include the Kurds, were urged to rise against Saddam Hussein at the end of the war and their plight today is the result of that uprising. The ruthless treatment of the Kurds is nothing less than genocide, as my honourable friend Ann Clwyd reported today.

The charge has been made that the relief effort has been too little and too late. We appreciate the Government's efforts as described in the Statement, but can the noble Earl say whether the momentum of that relief is being increased sufficiently by us and other countries in the coalition, as failure would clearly result in the deaths of thousands more?

Further, is it not essential that the Kurds in Iraq whom one sees suffering along the borders should be properly protected by a United Nations force? No one believes that they will be safe under Saddam Hussein's police and security forces. Again, is any attempt being made to persuade Turkey and Iran to establish secure camps which are adequately serviced for the Kurds who are there or on their borders? The Statement refers merely to "places" in Turkey and Iran. Can the noble Earl be a little more specific as to the meaning of "places"? I assume that they will be well serviced camps. Perhaps he will enlarge on that passage.

We noted that yesterday the Prime Minister said that he did not rule out the use of troops. Can the Minister clarify those words and say whether there is any move to co-ordinate some positive action to defend the Kurds?

The Statement does not say very much about the Shi'ites in the south of Iraq. They also are suffering and their losses have been enormous. Can we be told what action has been taken to help them? I assume that the safe haven provision would not apply to them because of the different situation on the border with Kuwait.

Finally, the Statement refers to the safe havens. Is the noble Earl satisfied that those are supported specifically by the Security Council resolutions and can he say when they will be defined and manned by United Nations officials?

3.46 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I would like to associate myself with thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in the House of Commons. I also associate myself with much of what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has said in connection with that Statement.

There is very little question but that our recognition of the terrible and tragic plight of the Kurds came extremely late. We must now make sure that the aid that we give to them is not too little and that the logistical effort which made the remarkable operation in the Gulf so extraordinarily effective in winning a war is repeated for saving the lives of people.

I must also repeat that we have there a direct responsibility. As the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. suggested —we cannot deny it—we encouraged the peoples of Iraq, of whom the Kurds are one, to replace Saddam Hussein. It seems more than ever tragic that it must appear to them that, having encouraged them, they are now being abandoned.

I should like to raise two relatively small matters before I come to wider issues. The Statement refers to activities of the Red Cross within Iraq. I hope that the Red Cross is not acting simply through the Iraqi Government, in which case the supplies will go straight to the Iraqi army and not to the people of Iraq who need them. That is an important issue which has to be cleared up.

Secondly, I wholly accept and endorse the suggestion in the Statement that Sad dam Hussein's amnesty cannot have any credibility in our eyes unless it is supervised by the United Nations. But the crucial question which arises, as the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, suggested, concerns the meaning of a "safe haven". We all agree that it must be temporary. Surely it must be temporarily within Iraq. Where else can it be? It can only be a place—to use the words of the Statement—where the Kurds can feel secure, if there is a UN or some other presence which ensures their security. Can the noble Earl tell us that that is being arranged and that the safe haven will be secured by a UN or, if not the UN, some other military presence?

Can the Minister also give us an undertaking that meanwhile the coalition's air supremacy will be used to protect the refugees? That will probably be necessary until Saddam Hussein is replaced. Finally, will he confirm that the policy of safe havens and the security of the safe havens until the final security of the Kurds is assured has the full support of the European Community?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the welcome they gave to the Statement and what we are doing to achieve its implementation. I agree with the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that this is one of the great tragedies of history, It is a desperate shame that we are faced with this situation at the moment. There is nothing but disgust and outrage at the reprehensible treatment by Saddam Hussein of his population. He has proved it before and has proved it yet again.

The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked why we did not act sooner. We were already supporting relief operations before the latest crisis began. In 1990 we provided £11 million bilaterally and through the Community to help UN agencies and the ICRC handling the Iraqi refugees. This year we provided a further £8 million including 1 million dollars to the UN disaster relief organisation which co-ordinated contingency arrangements in Jordan, Syria, Iran and Turkey for expected further outflows of refugees from Iraq. As soon as the news of the Kurdish exodus broke, on 4th April we announced a further £1 million in immediate help, £500,000 for the ICRC and £500,000 for the supply of tents and blankets to the Turkish Red Crescent.

Our next steps will involve continuing the airlift from the UK through the RAF drops. I believe that all your Lordships would like to join me in paying tribute to the remarkable work of the RAF in very difficult flying conditions. It has done a superb job.

We are also providing £1 million to the Turkish Government for the internal purchase of relief supplies. We are looking at the medical and other requirements with British NGOs and; stand prepared to help with their projects. Both my right honourable friend and my honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development discussed that with the NGOs this morning. I gather that it was a very good meeting.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, asked for a further definition of "places". That will depend on where we can move the Kurds to from the mountains. It is absolutely clear that we must get them off the mountains, because only by doing so shall we achieve the full benefit of our large humanitarian aid programme. Ideally, as the Statement says, we should like to get them to a base where they can feel secure, and the best place for that is their home. However —and one can merely speculate at this stage because of the discussions that are taking place—camps might well be involved as a temporary measure. There will of course be UN supervision of the Kurds. That is an integral part of the operation because, as the Statement says, unless they feel secure through UN people being available, I am sure that they will be reluctant to go back in case Saddam Hussein imposes further persecution on them.

The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked about the use of troops, the point made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. As my right honourable friend says, we might have to use troops if circumstances so require. We hope that the Iraqi Government will agree with the measures that we have proposed and that they can be undertaken by civilian rather than military means.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, referred to the aid going to the Red Cross ending up in the hands of the Iraqi army. My Lords, no. That is one of the points about which we are taking great care. We must make sure that the aid is given to the right recipients and is delivered to the appropriate international organisations and NGOs. I can confirm that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister's initiative received unanimous support in the Community.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, perhaps I may make a very important point. Is the noble Earl saying that Her Majesty's Government would in fact send troops inside Iraq itself, presumably with coalition partners, to secure those safe havens for the Kurds?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we should like to see safe havens set up. As I said at Question Time today, should the Iraqi Government make that impossible, or retaliate in any way against the Kurds once the havens have been set up, that will be met with an appropriate response.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will forgive me for intervening once more. However, it is surely the case that the Iraqi Government are continuing to attack the Kurds. It is for that reason that I asked whether we are prepared to use air supremacy—I did not refer to troops—to prevent such an attack? We can undertake that here and now. Will the noble Earl be so good as to tell the House the view on that question?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the United States has made it clear to Iraq that any attack made on the refugees north of the 36th Parallel will be met by force.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is it not plain, without in any way criticising the temporary measures that have to be undertaken to meet the emergency that has arisen, that there is no hope of the Kurdish people or the Shi'ites in the South coming back into their homes—which is the only permanent settlement for them—so long as active units of the Iraqi army, the Arabic-speaking troops, are in operation in those areas? Ought it not to be the objective of the international community to make Saddam Hussein withdraw his Arabic-speaking troops from the Shi'ite areas in the South and from the Kurdish areas in the North?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble and learned friend raises a very important point and puts his finger on it well. That is exactly why we wish to have the agreement of the Iraqi Government to take the measure forward.

3.57 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may raise the point that I had wished to make at Question Time. I watched the dropping of supplies from the helicopters and planes. When the supplies land there is no control over their distribution. There is a huge rush of people and no obvious proper distribution. Are there any plans to try to drop supplies at settled points so that they can be handled by people in authority and distributed fairly?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, yes indeed. There are lots of plans to try to improve the dropping of supplies. However, I am sure that the noble Lord will be the first to agree that the important factor was to get the supplies there. Given the terrain, terrible weather conditions and the logistical difficulties, it was inevitable that the first supplies in particular had to go in by Hercules aircraft. The accuracy of the drops is now much improved by the Chinook helicopters. As I said in the Statement, the number of Chinook helicopters operating in the area will increase. But the noble Lord is absolutely right to say that better co-ordination is also needed at ground level. However, given the immense number of people about whom we are talking, there are difficulties. The RAF pilots are doing a marvellous job in the appalling weather conditions.

The third point is to move the Kurds off the mountains down into the valleys where the weather conditions are less extreme, flying conditions are improved and better supervision can take place.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister two questions. First, I was a little puzzled by his reply at Question Time today about the mission of the Secretary-General. He connected it with the idea of safe havens, whereas it is my understanding that the Secretary-General has positively said that it is not part of his mission's work to explore such a possibility. It is important to know whether we are engaged in national diplomacy or whether there is still some hope from the United Nations Organisation itself.

The second question relates to a matter which is at least numerically manageable. I refer to the fate of some 20,000 Shi'ites in American-occupied territory in Southern Iraq from which the Americans are withdrawing in favour, it is said, of a United Nations peace-keeping force on the border but which withdrawal will permit the admission of Iraqi police and other security forces. If the safety of those 20,000 people cannot be guaranteed, what hope is there of persuading the Kurds to look for international assurances?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with regard to my noble friend's first question, I am sorry if I sowed confusion in his mind. What we are not talking about in the form of safe havens is what I repeated in the Statement: that is, a territorial enclave, a separate Kurdistan or a permanent UN presence. That perhaps led to the confusion about exactly what was initially meant by safe havens.

The UN presence in Iraq is partly a fulfilment of Security Council Resolution 688 which requested the UN Secretary-General to report on the plight of the civilian population in Iraq. His representative Mr. Suy is now in Baghdad. The Sadruddin Khan was also appointed, but he was appointed as executive delegate for the UN Inter-Agency Humanitarian Programme for Iraq, Kuwait and the border areas. He will co-ordinate the relief effort. Over the next few days we expect Mr. Suy rapidly to build up his team to between 50 and 100 people who will monitor the situation and report. There is no difference between the ambitions and hopes of the British Government, the United Nations and the American and French Governments.

My noble friend mentioned the Iraqis in the demilitarised zone. They will benefit from our programme because our concern is for the humanitarian needs for all Iraqis. We understand that the UNHCR is willing to accept responsibility for the Iraqi refugees sheltering in areas at present occupied by the coalition forces. Again, Mr. Suy, the UN Secretary General's representative, will follow up in Baghdad the implementation of the Security Council resolution. We have also urged the Kuwaiti and Saudi Governments to give shelter to the displaced Iraqis and I am sure that they will do so.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, what pressure will the Government bring to bear on other Arab governments, of which there are many, to help their fellow moslems in their present situation? Secondly, what happened to the butter and beef mountains in Europe? Could they not have been rapidly transmitted to these starving people?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I repeat that we have urged the Kuwaiti and Saudi Governments to give shelter to displaced Iraqis. This is a United Nations effort and therefore we hope that every country will join in. I do not know the answer to the second question of the noble Baroness, but it is important to get the right aid to the right people at the right time.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister clarify his answer to the question asked by my noble friend about helicopter gun ships? I understand from newspaper reports that the temporary cease-fire agreement prohibited the use of military fixed-wing aircraft but that the use of helicopters was allowed for transport. Can the Minister say why the Government did not long ago use the cease-fire agreement to stop the gunning down of civilians which can be carried out in mountainous areas only by helicopter gun ships? That is an important issue which should be cleared up.

Secondly, what guarantees have been given to Iraq, and to Turkey in particular, that they will not be landed with an enormous burden of cash expenditure and a large permanent influx of refugees? The allies should guarantee totally at least the cost of the operation.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the question of the use of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters was decided in the cease-fire terms in United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 687. Since then the situation has progressed. The American Government have said that there is to be no attacking of refugees north of the thirty-sixth parallel, whether by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters or other means. As regards the noble Lord's second question, the whole point of the United Nations Secretary General's two appeals is to mitigate the burden placed on countries adjacent to Iraq which might now be taking a great deal of the strain.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, will the Minister reply to the question asked by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition about action taken under the United Nations Genocide Convention 1948, to which Iraq was a signatory? Is he aware that in that convention genocide is extremely widely defined? It includes killing or harming people, irrespective of the number involved, simply because they are members of a particular race. Certainly under that convention Saddam Hussein is guilty a thousand times.

As regards the amnesty that has been promised to the Kurdish people if they return to their homes, does the Minister agree that in the light of their terrible experiences during the past 20 years the vast majority will, with total justifiability continue to dismiss any such proposal? That would remain the case if United Nations representatives were scattered throughout parts of the Kurds' homeland to ensure that the amnesty is respected. Will the Minister further accept that the only possibility of persuading the Kurds to return to their villages and homes is to rid the country forever of Saddam Hussein and all that he stands for?

Thirdly, the Minister referred to the necessity of maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq. I agree with him but is he aware that opposition to the Kurdish cause often arises through the fear of the dismemberment of Iraq if the Kurds achieve independence? I know personally the two main leaders of the revolution and have spoken to them many times. I am certain that their aim is not the establishment of an independent state of Iraqi Kurdistan, let alone an independent united Kurdistan. Will the Minister accept that their aim is to achieve a certain degree of autonomy comparable to that of an American state within the framework of a federal state after the departure of Saddam Hussein?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it is true that genocide is a crime under international law. The noble Lord referred to the Genocide Convention 1948 under which the contracting parties have agreed to prevent and to punish the offence. Persons charged with genocide can be tried before national courts. The situation in Iraq is confused and therefore the first priority must be to obtain hard information. That is why the UN Secretary General's representative, Mr. Suy, is preparing a report on the situation inside Iraq. We shall consider carefully how to take his conclusions further. We all wish to see the Kurds returning to their homes in peace and security. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister put forward his initiative.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, in the light of the reply that the Minister gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, and arising out of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, can the Minister say what is being done for the people in southern Iraq? The Minister says that pressure has been put on the Kuwaitis but how successful has that been? I believe that the Kuwaitis owe us a little attention in such matters because in recent months we have gone to some trouble on their behalf. Perhaps they can be leant on fairly heavily to assist the poor people whose American protection is being withdrawn.

The Minister repeated that the Kurds need to be brought down from the mountains. I do not disagree but it is not clear whether the Government, the Community and others involved wish to bring them down from the mountains on the Turkish or the Iraqi side of the border. The Statement points out that we should not aim to add a new permanent refugee problem to others which disfigure the world. On behalf of the British Refugee Council, which strongly holds that view, I must point out that there is a danger of setting up yet another permanent refugee population in that part of the world. That can be avoided only if the Kurds come down on the Iraqi side of the border and are properly protected for some time to come.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, on the first point, I assure the noble Lord that a considerable amount of discussion is taking place with the Kuwaiti and Saudi Governments to give shelter to those in the demilitarised zone in the south of Iraq.

The noble Lord quoted from the Statement which I repeated. Had he read the next sentence, he would have found the answer to his question about on which side of the mountain the Kurds would come down. I said that the Kurds should be enabled and encouraged to return to their homes.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, following the question by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, which I do not believe has been answered, perhaps I may ask this. Surely it is the case that at the end of the war the United Nations was in a position to make peace on its own terms. I understand that there has been a preliminary cease-fire settlement and now there is a permanent cease-fire settlement. How is it that in neither of those settlements was there an insistence that there should be no attacks by Saddam Hussein's military forces on either the Kurds or the Shi'ites? If that is the case, and particularly in view of the use of helicopter gunships, which has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, why were those gunships not prohibited from use by Saddam Hussein? Is it not now possible for the British Government, as a permanent member of the Security Council, to go to that Security Council and do what they did not do previously; namely, to insist that in the permanent peace settlement there should be provision that Saddam Hussein and his government or any successor government should be prohibited from using force against those sections of the community which we and the Americans have encouraged to revolt against them?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I do not have the full terms of Security Council Resolution No. 687 with me. That is the cease-fire agreement which has now been signed by the Iraqis and agreed by the United Nations. Therefore, I cannot comment in detail on the points made by the noble Lord. Suffice it to say that we wish to see secure and safe havens for the Kurds in their homes which must be for their own long-term benefit. The initiative of my right honourable friend sets out to achieve that.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is not the noble Earl astonished, as I am, that the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, should take this line? After all, during the period of the war he was insistent that the United Nations forces —that is, the American army and its allies—should withdraw immediately from the frontiers on the liberation of Kuwait. Because the Americans followed the policy of the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, and did exactly that, there is no countervailing force available to compel Saddam Hussein to treat both the Kurds and the Shi'ites in the way in which one would expect a civilised nation to treat its nationals.

Is it not the duty of the Government to urge the following upon the President of the United States? While we understand his reluctance to commit ground forces to enter Iraq at this stage—and we understand why he has withdrawn them—nevertheless it is essential to keep a strong air presence on the airfields in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, if necessary, Baghdad can be bombed and then Saddam Hussein will have a refugee problem on his own hands.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord asked me whether I was astonished by the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch. I am not. By now I am used to the noble Lord and he now ceases to astonish me. Perhaps on this occasion the Americans were right to follow the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Hatch; but I am sure on other occasions the Americans will think very seriously about such matters. The noble Lord concluded by commenting on the issue of air power. At present we are keeping fighter planes in the area and the Americans have said that the Iraqis must not trespass north of the 36th Parallel.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords,—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, perhaps I may point out that 20 minutes have elapsed since the Front Bench spokesmen asked their questions.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, on a point of order, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether he considers that when a personal attack is made on a Member of this House, that Member has a right to state that that attack was totally incorrect.