HL Deb 17 April 1991 vol 527 cc1511-9

5.12 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 was made earlier today 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 further statement about the relief of the suffering in Iraq. On Monday I reported to the House on the plan put forward by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to establish temporary safe havens in Iraq for the refugees until they can return to their homes in safety. I said that we were pressing the plan vigorously. I can now report good progress. Following my right honourable friend's initiative, we have continued intensive discussions with our close allies, particularly the French and United States Governments, our partners in the European Community and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. We warmly welcome the decision announced by President Bush late yesterday to establish, in conjunction with ourselves and the French, several encampments in northern Iraq where relief supplies for the refugees will be made available in large quantities and distributed in an orderly way. This is essential for the survival of the refugees. Security will be provided at these temporary sites by US, British and French forces. The details are today being worked out in close consultation with our Allies and with the UN Secretary-General. These proposals are to help provide emergency aid, as authorised by Security Council Resolution 688. We regard these camps as temporary. They will provide, first, the emergency supplies and shelter needed to keep the refugees alive and, secondly, over time the reassurance they need to move on in safety to their homes. It is an immediate measure designed to save lives. We shall be working closely with the United Nations. UN Resolution 688 requires the Iraqi Government to co-operate both with measures undertaken to ensure the implementation of that resolution and generally with the UN Secretary-General's efforts for the refugees. Meanwhile we shall continue our own additional relief efforts. My right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development gave evidence on this to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs this morning. In addition to our contribution to the air aid bridge we have contributed over £20 million to appeals by the United Nations and other agencies. We are supporting the efforts of our own nongovernmental organisations. Our efforts are not confined to Turkey. My right honourable friend will leave for Turkey and Iran tomorrow to help to ensure that the relief effort is being properly co-ordinated on the ground. Last week we sent 80 tonnes of relief supplies to Iran. Two additional flights carrying a similar amount will leave for Iran this week and more will follow. The Iranian authorities and Red Crescent are making strenuous efforts, but it is clear that a substantial build-up of the international effort to help the Kurds in Iran is essential and urgent". My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. We discussed the appalling situation in Iraq during our exchanges on Monday and today we warmly welcome the decision by Her Majesty's Government, the United States Government and France to send troops to Northern Iraq to make the encampments for the Kurdish refugees secure and to defend them against any possible attack by the Iraqi army.

Will the noble Earl say whether an attack from the south is a possibility, or does he think that Saddam Hussein will hold back? Further, may we assume that our aircraft are in position to counter any possible attack, not only by Iraqi troops but by Iraqi aircraft, including helicopters? We note that the size of the British force will be less than a brigade. Will the Minister tell us the extent of the area in Northern Iraq which will be occupied by them and by US and French forces? What is to be the command structure under which they operate, or is this matter currently being discussed?

Will the noble Earl tell us whether the entire action is being taken under Security Council Resolution 688 or whether a further resolution will be necessary in order to legalise it? If military action breaks out, I assume that that would not be covered by Resolution 688 alone.

Furthermore, the Statement recognises that a similar disaster is developing on the Iranian border where the Kurdish refugees number about half a million. We welcome what the Statement says about the dispatch of food to those unhappy people. Will the Minister say whether any action in terms of troops is proposed to help them as well? For example, are there to be encampments on the Iraqi side of the Iranian border where those 500,000 refugees are gathered?

We note that the objective is to hand over that responsibility to the United Nations as soon as possible. Will the noble Earl tell us what the timescale is likely to be? How long does he think the British brigade will be there?

Finally, we regard this as a positive and practical response to a terrible problem and we welcome and support the initiative.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place. I should like to associate myself with many of the questions put to him by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos.

We welcome the Statement as marking considerable progress since the last Statement on Monday, not least in the position of the United States. In that regard, we should congratulate Her Majesty's Government, particularly the Prime Minister. We should point out that that change in the position of the United States has been taken on an initiative from Europe.

We are particularly happy to hear that safe havens are to be established in Iraq. However, I should like to associate myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, said in connection with the situation in Iran, to which the noble Earl referred, but which involves larger numbers and in some ways is in more acute need, if that were possible, than the situation on the Turkish border.

I was surprised that there was no reference in the Statement to the situation in the south and to the Shias there. I should like to know whether the Kuwaitis and the Saudi Arabians who have benefited to some extent from the Gulf operation are playing their part in assisting those who are in danger or see themselves in danger in that part of Iraq.

We are happy to hear that military protection will be provided, though I noted that the Statement did not make any reference to the role of air supremacy in the whole operation, which must be crucial. This is presumably one of the largest operations of its kind that has taken place since the Berlin airlift. The logistical skill with which the military operations in the Gulf were conducted was remarkable. One only hopes that the same energies and skills are being applied to this humanitarian relief.

I think I am right in saying that at the time of the Berlin airlift something like 1,400 air movements a day were taking place at RAF Fairford. That gives some idea of the scale of the operation required, not least because the numbers here are probably not much smaller than those involved on that occasion. I too should like to know what the position is vis-à-vis the UN and whether Resolution 688 is sufficient to cover all the operations with which we are concerned.

One of the aspects this tragedy has revealed is the necessity to make clear in any final settlement that the rights of minorities are in future protected in that part of the world and elsewhere. Indeed, a weakness in the cease-fire terms was precisely the absence of such conditions.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for their responses to the Statement. A number of questions have been asked. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked whether Saddam Hussein would hold back. As I said in the Statement, it is part of the Security Council resolution that Iraq has to comply with it.

I should like to make perfectly clear again that we shall not tolerate any interference in our humanitarian relief operations anywhere in Iraq. The Americans have specifically told the Iraqi authorities not to fly any aircraft, fixed-wing or rotary, north of the 36th parallel. Woe betide Saddam Hussein if he does not hold back. On that basis, I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, that aircraft are available to take appropriate action should it be needed.

The noble Lord raised a relevant question about the extent of the area and the command structure. At this stage I am unable to give him full details because the modalities of the plan are being discussed today. We want to see early implementation of However, let me reassure the House that in whatever way possible I shall seek to keep your Lordships abreast of developments in what is obviously a very fast-moving situation.

Both noble Lords asked for further details about whether this action was being taken under Security Council Resolution 688. We believe that our plan is consistent with the provisions of that resolution, and the UN Secretary-General agrees with the general principles of our plan. I fully take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, that we may have to seek a further resolution if things do not proceed as we hope, but we very much believe that the existing resolutions cover exactly what we are doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, also asked about the timescale of the operation. Obviously the deployment is short-term to meet the immediate need to protect the relief operation. Our objective is to give the Kurds sufficient assurance of their future security so they will come down from the mountains and later go back to their homes. How long that will take we cannot say, but we hope it will be a short rather than long timescale, and perhaps the appropriate word at the moment is "months".

I am grateful for the congratulations extended to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. Indeed, it is a remarkable tribute to the initiative of my right honourable friend and to the concerted work we have done with the French and Americans.

With regard to Iran, I shall not repeat what I said in the Statement. I add only that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be discussing the situation in Iran with EC colleagues and the US Secretary of State, Mr. Baker, in Luxembourg later this evening.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, also asked what was happening in the south. I remind him that our concern is for the humanitarian needs of all Iraqis, and we are urging the Saudis and Kuwaitis to give shelter as necessary to displaced Iraqis.

I should like to add to what I said yesterday. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, who is not in his place but perhaps will read this in the Official Report, asked what part of the UNIKOM force would be armed. The 300-man officer observer force will not be armed but the infantry back-up company comprising 1,140 men will carry arms for defensive purposes. The chief military observer, General Greindl, has left for the region. Some observers are already in place and the rest will follow shortly. Therefore, there will be protection in the south as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, suggested that this was the biggest operation of its kind since the Berlin airlift. I do not have precise figures to hand, but President Bush said late last night that it was the largest US relief effort mounted in modern military history.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend the Minister whether, as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has most graciously suggested, it was not the timely and humanitarian initiative of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister which played the crucial role in securing American support for safe havens and also recognition of the need for a military presence to protect them. I would also ask my noble friend the Minister to explain the part played by Her Majesty's Government in drawing up terms of cease-fire under which Iraq will be stripped of its weapons of mass destruction.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Indeed, the Prime Minister played a most crucial part in this humanitarian effort, which has been backed up by intensive negotiations. Besides paying tribute to the initiative of my right honourable friend, I would pay tribute to all those who have burnt the midnight oil and beyond in taking the initiative forward to its present state in this country and in France and America.

Referring to the second point made by my noble friend, it was a British initiative which led in large part to the drafting of the cease-fire arrangements, including those relating to the horrible weapons Saddam Hussein now has, and now the cease-fire agreement in respect of which Iraq has signed up for their destruction.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I should like to say that we on these Benches do not see the Prime Minister's action in this case as that of a ditherer and a wimp.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I would say only that none of my right honourable friend's actions takes that form.

5.30 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, briefly I should like to say how good it is to hear the Statement and to express the hope, as put by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that we shall put as much vitality, initiative and daring into this as we did, quite rightly, in prosecuting the war. This is something in which perhaps some of the aid agencies can play their part and give of their expertise, and I hope they will be called upon so to do. As we have said in the House before, one of the things we do not want is to create refugee camps which will not be dissolved for 15 years. This is a good announcement, and let me say how much we in the Churches will want to affirm it.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate. It will require a great deal of logistical expertise and determined effort by governments, the UN, the NGOs and the relief agencies, all of which have an enormous role to play, to make sure the aid gets there as quickly as possible. I can tell your Lordships that the right reverend Prelate wrote to me yesterday, he not having taken part in Question Time, and reminded me of Drake's prayer. Indeed, we shall see this through to the end.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, having been in contact over the past month with many of the Kurdish leaders, and in view of what we have been able to see on television and read in the newspapers, I am sure that the entire Kurdish people as well as the British people will be most grateful for the endeavours of our Prime Minister and the success that he has achieved in persuading the President of the United States, to change his attitude a little. That is no mean achievement. I hope that none of it will be ruined by not having the courage to proceed in the United Nations to acknowledge that all the world's tyrants such as Saddam Hussein have always had people in their own country who support them. Such is the case now in Iraq. It is a tiny minority but it is enough. It will be a terrible shame if those endeavours—which could be made a reality with enclaves being constructed—should be beaten and smashed and once again the Kurds slain by the might of Saddam Hussein.

Can the noble Earl say whether it is the desire of our country to put pressure on the United Nations to ensure that Saddam Hussein is brought to book for the grave crimes that he has committed in Iraq and Kuwait?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, makes a fair point. As I said yesterday, it has been agreed within the Twelve that the Community will approach the UN Secretary-General —indeed the President did approach him yesterday —to see whether this matter could be taken further forward.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, the Statement referred to when it would be safe for the Kurdish people to return to their homes. In view of the misunderstanding which arose between the Americans saying that they never told the Kurds to rise against Saddam and the Kurds denying it, it could well be that the Minister's Statement will be read as a commitment to safeguard the Kurds until they are safe to go home. Can the noble Earl give us an explicit answer: is that the pledge that is being given?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the pledge is clearly set out in the Statement. We wish to encourage the Kurds to come off the mountains from those desolate conditions down to the lower levels where it is easier and logistically more sensible for the aid to be taken to them with the idea that eventually they will be able to return safely to their own homes. I do not want to get into the semantics of this. We did not encourage the Kurds to rebel. President Bush again confirmed today what was said. He said that he would not shed any tears at all if Saddam Hussein went.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I do not disagree with that at all. I asked a specific question. We must consider how including in the Statement mention of when it is safe for the Kurds to return home will be looked on by the Kurds. First of all, someone has to define when it is safe for the Kurds to return home. Someone has to do that because in the future someone will question it. Is this a pledge to safeguard the Kurds until they can return in safety to their home?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I shall use exactly the wording of the Statement. What my right honourable friend the Prime Minister sought to do through his initiative, which was taken forward by the announcement of President Bush last night, was to attempt to establish temporary safe havens in Iraq for the refugees until they can return to their homes in safety.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I unreservedly welcome the action of Her Majesty's Government and congratulate them on taking it. As the noble Earl rightly stressed in the Statement, these are and can only be temporary measures. As my noble friend Lord Sefton just pointed out, the policy depends on persuading the Kurds to come down from the mountains to the camps with the prospect of going back home. As my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, pointed out, there is no mention of double the number of Kurds who are in Iran Nor any mention of the Shi'ites in southern Iraq. Nor, I would add, of the Kurds and other minorities who are still in their towns. What will persuade them that they will be safe to return either from the mountains of Turkey, from Iran or from the south of Iraq to their towns which are at present being bombed and attacked by the Iraqi army?

As my noble friend Lord Sefton asked: is this in the longer term a guarantee to the minorities or indeed to the opposition groups in Iraq who were certainly encouraged, as a result of the way in which the war was fought and by what was said after the war by leaders of the coalition, to believe that they had the green light to rebel? They now feel that they have been let down because Saddam Hussein has been enabled to continue to attack them. Is this now the first stage of a promise that the coalition will safeguard the right of the Kurds to return to their homes in safety? That safety will never come from Saddam Hussein. It can only come from the coalition.

Further to that point, when the peace treaty is arranged, will the Kurds and other opposition groups in Iraq be entitled to be represented at the peace talks? Will there be within that peace settlement a guarantee of their safety in the future?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, when the noble Lord started I thought that for once should be able to agree in full with what he said. But he went on to say that I had not covered the points about the people in the south of Iraq, those on the Iranian border and indeed those in Iran. Quite contrary to what he said, I have spent a lot of time on Monday, yesterday and today dealing with precisely those points.

The noble Lord omitted to remind the House that UN Resolution 688 requires the Iraqi Government to co-operate with the measures undertaken to ensure the implementation of that resolution and generally with the UN Secretary-General's efforts for the refugees. So although the immediate humanitarian effort is to get the Kurds off the mountains down Lo more clement climates where the aid can be disbursed more efficiently and effectively, our ultimate intention is to allow them to return safely to their homes and for those in Iraq to live in peace.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, the noble Earl has not said whether the Government envisage—possibly at some future time but it must be very quickly—the same kind of protection for the Kurds in Iran and the Shi'ites in southern Iraq. Do the Government intend to set up similar enclaves, protected by troops, in those two areas as well as for the Iraqis who are now in the mountains of Turkey?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as I have already said to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, the modalities of the scheme are being, worked out at the moment. Therefore I cannot comment exactly where the safe havens will be. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, that I have already explained at length about UNIKOM which is an armed force in the south.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Prime Minister's objective to get the Kurds down off the mountains is clearly vital. However, has any thought been given to the logistics of getting them down? It is my understanding that not all of them by any means are fit to walk. Is there any other means of transport available?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, considerable thought has been, is being, and will be given to the logistics both of getting aid to the Kurds and of getting them off the mountains. There are now a considerable number of American, British and French helicopters in the area. I fully take the noble Lord's point about the condition of some of the people and the harrowing scenes that we have all seen on television. I am sure that every effort will be made to get them down as quickly as possible.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, can the noble Earl say how the refugees will be protected on their journey from the mountains to the camps from attacks by the Iraqi army?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, basically, the area of which we are talking is an area where the Iraqi army is not present at the moment.