HL Deb 18 January 1993 vol 541 cc740-9

4.15 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement being made in another place this afternoon by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:

"Yesterday and earlier today the coalition took further military action against Iraq. There were a number of separate operations.

"At 0845 hours GMT today, four RAF Tornado GR1 aircraft and two Victor tankers took part in a further coalition operation, involving over 40 US, British and French aircraft, against Iraqi air defence facilities and command and control facilities in southern Iraq, which had continued to pose a threat to coalition aircraft in the no-fly zone. Attacks were also carried out to suppress air defence installations which threatened the security of coalition aircraft participating in the operation. All coalition aircraft and aircrew returned safely.

"Four RAF aircraft participated in the attack against an air defence operations centre at A1 Najaf. Two Tornado GR1 aircraft were to use 10001b laser guided bombs against targets designated by the TIALD pods, carried by the other two aircraft. One of the Tornados was unable clearly to identify the target and did not release its weapons in order to avoid the possibility of causing civilian casualties or damage to other buildings in the area. However, the other Tornado successfully completed the attack.

"Like the operation on 13th January, this action was taken in self defence to ensure the safety of coalition aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone below the 32nd parallel in support of UNSCR 688. This was a follow-up to the action taken on 13th January. Early indications are that further significant damage has been inflicted on Iraq's residual air defences in the southern no-fly zone. Assessment of the results is continuing.

"This followed action in the latter part of yesterday when cruise missiles, launched from the US Navy ships in the region, attacked a facility connected with the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programme. The early indications are that the facility was extensively damaged. This action was taken to ensure that Iraq complies with its mandatory obligations under UNSCR 687 and related resolutions. Iraq has committed a number of material breaches of UNSCR 687 and wilfully ignored the warnings given by the Security Council and the US, UK, France and Russia on 11th and 14th January respectively.

"There has also been a number of incidents in the northern no-fly zone. On 17th January, an Iraqi fighter aircraft violated the no-fly zone in the north of Iraq. The Iraqi aircraft was engaged and shot down by coalition aircraft. In addition, coalition aircraft were illuminated by Iraqi air defence radars on a number of occasions in the last few days, including an RAF Jaguar on 16th January. This was in violation of the coalition demarche of 14th April 1992, which warned Iraq against a number of specific actions which would be taken as indicators of hostile intent. Following one such incident an SA-6 battery was attacked on 17th January by coalition aircraft armed with the high speed anti-radiation missile (HARM). Initial damage assessments indicate that the SAM system was put out of action. Iraqi air defence radars were again attacked using HARM on 18th January.

"These coalition actions have clearly demonstrated to the Iraqis the seriousness of our demand that Iraq should comply with UN resolutions and our continuing determination to maintain the no-fly zones in the North and South of Iraq. If the Iraqis still refuse to comply with United Nations resolutions the Government will not shirk from considering the need for further action in consultation with coalition partners.

"The House would not wish me to conclude without expressing again our appreciation of the continuing efforts of our servicemen and women serving in the Gulf. They can be assured that they enjoy the wholehearted support of the vast majority in this House and of the British public at large." My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement made in another place and I, from these Benches, wholeheartedly endorse what the Government, and indeed the noble Viscount, said in appreciation of the servicemen and women serving in the Gulf. We have nothing but the highest admiration for people of this country working in difficult circumstances. We also support action in no-fly zones. It is essential that the Kurds and the Shias are protected from what threatens to be genocide by the Iraqi Government.

Beyond that I enter one or two important caveats. We understand that last Wednesday's attack was within the terms of UN Resolution 687. As such, we are reassured. But there is no point in that reassurance if such actions lead to full-scale war. I hope that the noble Viscount will bear that in mind when he replies. I will come to the upshot later in my questions to the noble Viscount.

My questions are as follows. Are the US Government now going a bit too far? Are we going beyond what was decided by the United Nations Security Council? Are we in danger of losing the ultimate authority that those actions must have, not of one country alone but of the international community as represented by the United Nations? Who are the members of the coalition referred to on many occasions in the Statement? Is it the same coalition as operated in what was known as the "Gulf War"? In other words, are the Syrians involved? Are the Saudi Arabians involved? Who are the people involved in the coalition?

Next, by what authority did President Bush decree a missile attack on an installation in Iraq, outside the no-fly zones? Was it by reference to some United Nations resolution about which we have not yet heard? How did that missile attack result in the apparent destruction of the al-Rashid Hotel in the centre of Baghdad which housed foreign journalists? Was that a mistake? We all know that Tomahawk cruise missile guidance systems are not entirely reliable. In the Government's view, was it an anti-aircraft missile which fell in the wrong place? What is the truth of that matter?

We all understand that President Bush wants to go out on a fine and heroic note. But does that fine and heroic note have to implicate British servicemen flying British planes in a dangerous area? Should not the whole matter be taken back to the Security Council for full debate so that we can obtain proper authority for further action, if any is needed?

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. I associate those of us on these Benches with the tribute rightly paid to our servicemen and women in the Gulf area. On behalf of my colleagues I should say that I do not expect the Government to receive a blank cheque from any Opposition party to indulge in operations of this kind. We must be satisfied that such operations are justified by reference to three criteria.

First, we must be satisfied on the principle of proportionality; that is, that the action we take is related to the offence committed—put crudely, that the punishment fits the crime. Secondly, we must be satisfied that there is agreement between all our partners in the coalition. That is an important point and one with which I am in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. Thirdly, it must be abundantly clear that we are acting and seen to be acting as an instrument of the United Nations and in accordance with international law.

It is the second of those conditions which worries me. I am not at all sure that our actions can have the full assent and support of some of our partners in the coalition. Indeed, one knows that it places a strain on, for example, the Syrians and the Saudis to remain with us. It is crucially important that we maintain their support in the whole affair.

I have a further reservation that in all these matters the purpose and object of our policy should be clear in the mind of our Government and that of the United States in particular. It is not enough to give the obvious answer that all we are trying to do is secure compliance with the Security Council resolution. We must consider the wider implications of our policy. Perhaps this is not the time at which to do that and the matter should be the subject of a wider debate. However, is it or is it not the policy of the United States to overthrow the Iraqi Government? If it is not, we must tread extremely carefully. If it is, is this the most efficient way to do it? If so, will that lead to the break-up of Iraq and thereby have serious consequences throughout the Middle East? Further, is the object of our policy clear to the Iraqis? If it is not, it will not succeed.

Those are questions which must be addressed even though they cannot be fully answered this afternoon. Therefore, while in general I support the measures designed to secure compliance with the Security Council resolutions, we must be sure that those resolutions justify the actions we take.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am particularly grateful for the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Bonham-Carter, about the quality of the service of our servicemen during the course of these operations. Those remarks will be read with appreciation by the servicemen concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked whether this action will lead to full-scale war, and in that context both he and the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, directly and by implication, asked what was the purpose of our policy. In the first instance, the purpose of our policy was indeed reflected in the two principal Security Council resolutions, 687 and 688, under which we are acting as part of the coalition. I shall come to the membership of the coalition in a moment. Those resolutions—especially Resolution 688 —were passed with the objective of trying to ensure some degree of protection against the terrible things the Iraqi Government were doing to the Shi'ite population, particularly in the marshes of southern Iraq, and also to the Kurds north of the 36th parallel. Therefore I suggest that we have a clear policy and a limited policy and I hope your Lordships will agree that, in view of the clarity of that objective and its limited nature, the response has so far been restrained and proportionate to the objective I have described.

In that context it is important that we should be clear what the United Nations Secretariat itself feels about whether the coalition has acted under adequate authority. I should like to quote the Secretary-General himself, who said on 14th January: The raid yesterday, and the forces that carried out the raid, have received a mandate from the Security Council, according to Resolution 678, and the cause of the raid was the violation by Iraq of Resolution 687 concerning the cease-fire. So, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, I can say that this action was taken and conforms to the resolutions of the Security Council and conforms to the Charter of the United Nations". I think your Lordships will agree that that adds considerably to the assurances that we have endeavoured to give in respect of authority. It may also help if I assure your Lordships, in the context of who the coalition is, that there has been constant consultation by the United States not only with the participants in the present action—the French and the British—but also with other prominent members of the coalition forces that took part in the Gulf War two years ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also asked about the incident at the al-Rashid Hotel. I am not in a position as yet to give a definitive answer to the important question which he asked. All I can say is that there are two ways of looking at it. Either a Cruise missile, which, contrary to what the noble Lord said, has a reputation for being one of the more accurate weapons of modern warfare—the noble Lord may shake his head but many experts would disagree with him—went between 13 and 18 kilometres off course; alternatively, your Lordships may feel that it was remarkably convenient that the most public building in Iraq so far as concerns foreign correspondents was the subject of an attack and an explosion. I do not comment on what actually happened. We are endeavouring to address ourselves to that as a matter of urgency. I shall be happy to answer any of your Lordships' questions on this subject as soon as I am in a position to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, set out certain criteria. I have endeavoured to answer at least the last two of the criteria which he enunciated. So far as concerns his first one, I refer him to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, who himself, by implication, said that we were not yet engaged in a full-scale war. I hope that it will not be necessary to do so.

4.36 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the present troubled state of the world many of us find it enormously encouraging that this country should be acting in collaboration with the United States, France and Russia? That combination has great potential for maintaining the peace of the world and is a rather gratifying outcome of this very difficult situation. Is he also aware of the feeling of many of us that, if action had not been taken in the face of Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations' decision, the good effects of the action taken earlier and of the war which we fought would have been largely offset, and that therefore it was essential that firm action should have been taken?

Finally, I add my own profoundly moved admiration for the gallantry and determination of our own forces acting in a dangerous situation in a distant part of the world and maintaining the highest standards of British arms.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for what he has said, particularly for his final remarks. We try to protect our forces, as I am sure my noble friend knows, as far as is possible. Yet he equally well knows that the duty of servicemen is to fight when absolutely necessary. I wholly agree with him—and here I return to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Williams, which I did not fully answer—that it is eminently in the interests of this country to take part in the operations that are going on in Iraq. I have no doubt at all that the servicemen taking part in those operations are well aware of the geo-political imperatives that make that so. I agree with my noble friend that it is extremely gratifying that the collaboration that the founding fathers of the United Nations envisaged in London and San Francisco at the end of the Second World War is finally beginning, particularly in view of the extremely gratifying—I use my noble friend's word—approval of Russia as the fourth member of the Security Council for our demarche.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, it will not be my intention to criticise the policies of Her Majesty's Government and I pay tribute to the work of those who have been involved in this conflict. But in supporting my noble friend on the Front Bench I express a concern about where this takes us. I recognise that there have been severe breaches of Security Council Resolutions 687 and 688 and I note the statements made by the Secretary-General. However, does it not seem to the Minister that when the Security Council passes resolutions it is not for a group of countries to determine how to react if those resolutions are not carried out? Would it not be preferable to return to the Security Council in order to get a further mandate?

The Minister simply referred to the three members of the coalition, but does he accept that considerable strains are now being placed on some of the other members of the coalition who were involved in the Gulf War? One is Russia, one is Egypt and another is Syria. We could list them. As this might go on week after week, are there not real dangers that there will be further infringements of the Security Council resolution? Would it not be wiser now to return to the Security Council and to get its backing rather than risk the danger of a very important coalition, with a very important objective, getting itself into the sort of difficulties that I have outlined?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I have already quoted the remarks made by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on 14th January and I shall certainly not weary your Lordships by repeating what I quoted a few moments ago. I shall say merely that he is satisfied—as we are satisfied—that we are operating well within the existing authority and that what is at stake here is the authority of the United Nations itself. The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, is far too experienced in international affairs not to have at his fingertips the extraordinary and growing list of violations (which amount to a series of defiances) by Iraq of a number of Security Council resolutions. He will know that Iraq has refused to co-operate with UN inspectors on searches for weapons of mass destruction—which are themselves undoubtedly one of the greatest threats to peace in the post-cold war world. Iraq has refused to allow UN inspectors to use their own aircraft to, from and within Iraq itself—and the noble Lord will know the dangers of that. And so on and so forth —I could go on with a list, but I shall not weary the House.

We are perfectly satisfied that we have that authority and if it becomes clear that that authority needs renewing, refreshing or extending, we shall have no hesitation in going back to the Security Council. We are fully confident that we have its backing and that we will have its backing when and if the time comes. Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to suggest this to him: I did not refer only to three members of the coalition. He will be aware that not only is Russia a permanent member of the Security Council, but that there are a number of other members of the coalition whose active support and encouragement has been essential in order to make sure that this operation is possible at all. I refer particularly to members in that part of the world.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is it not entirely consistent with what my noble friend has said that we should remember at all times that these actions arose out of something which called into question the whole efficacy of the United Nations; namely, the deliberate and wholly illegal obliteration of one member of the United Nations by another in total defiance of the United Nations' charter, and that if we showed any faint heartedness in this respect at this stage in time, the good work which we did two years ago would be entirely lost?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend and can add nothing to what he has just said.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, the tributes to the troops who are involved in these actions are very generous and I am sure that they will be well received, especially by the families of those troops. However, is the Minister aware of the cases that were widely publicised in the press at the weekend and that the financial entitlements that were due to the dependants of those troops who were tragically killed in the Gulf War two years ago have still not been paid? While tributes are all right and very acceptable, tragically, they do not pay the mortgage or feed the children. Will the Minister agree to look into this problem? Although I do not expect him to give me an answer off the cuff because it is a very important matter, I hope that he will write to me and explain exactly what is going on in relation to the dependants of the troops who were tragically killed in the Gulf War two years ago.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord. Again, this is a matter in which I have taken some interest in the past few weeks and months. The noble Lord will know that the Gulf Trust is about to be wound up and that over £3 million was subscribed to it by a generous public. Many grants have already been made although there are still some outstanding claims which are being addressed not only by the trust, but by what I might call their "residual legatees", which are the three main service charities. In so far as I am able, I shall certainly be happy to give chapter and verse to the noble Lord, and I accept with pleasure his kind offer that I should write to him. However, perhaps I may advise him that there have been a number of disagreements about who is entitled to what, as is always the case, however undesirable, when large sums of money are at stake. The objective of the Ministry of Defence and certainly of the independent trustees of the Gulf Trust—and I must stress to the noble Lord that they are independent—has been to make sure that there is as equitable and as rapid a distribution as possible. That is still our objective in spite of it being over two years since the end of the Gulf War.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I wonder whether I may return to a point which I think is very important and which was raised originally by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. My noble friend the Minister rightly says that our servicemen are convinced of the justice of the cause and of its concern to this country, but they must also be concerned that what is being done is likely to bring about the desired result. We are told that these are efforts to persuade the present regime in Iraq both to observe the conditions of the cease-fire and to cease the persecution of the Shi'as and the Kurds, but everything that has come out of Iraq during these events suggests that there is not the slightest intention or willingness on the part of the Iraqi regime to consider either of these since Iraq denies both any special status for its minorities (and with it the idea of the no-fly zone) and that the United Nations has the rights of intervention on which we are acting.

If it is not possible to persuade the present government in Iraq, one is faced—is one not?—with the proposition that was advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter; namely, is it our intention to see that this regime falls? That is a very serious issue, but unless we know what the objective is (and unless it is an objective that we can see can be reached), is it fair to ask our gallant servicemen to risk their lives further?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, if I may be impertinent for a moment, perhaps I may say that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, always asks extremely pertinent questions. He will know as well as I do that on the question of the nature, membership and complexion of any future government of Iraq, the "standard reply" (if I may put it like that) up to now has been that this is a matter for the Iraqi people. I am sure that the noble Lord will not expect me to add to that standard reply this afternoon.

However, I can say that short of that there is undoubtedly, as I have already tried to explain to the noble Lords, Lord Williams of Elvel and Lord Bonham-Carter, a narrower objective which is certainly in itself worthy of putting our servicemen's lives at risk for. It is, first of all, to make sure that Iraq is not tempted yet again to transgress and violate the borders of Kuwait. We know that there have been rather curious activities in the past few weeks in that regard. However, as a result of the pressure that the coalition has applied to the Iraqi Government, those activities have ceased for the moment and the appropriate withdrawals have taken place.

In addition there are the humanitarian considerations which arise out of the extraordinary activities of the Iraqi Government—in the north against the Kurds and in the south against the Shi'as. That in itself is reason enough for us to take the action that we have and justification enough for the SC resolutions that I have mentioned.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it was with great relief that we heard his quotation from the statement made by the Secretary-General on the 14th of this month when he said that the coalition was acting within United Nations resolutions? Will the Minister tell us what has been the Secretary-General's reaction to the attack on the military installations on the outskirts of Baghdad?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot supply the noble Baroness with an answer as satisfactory as the one I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Williams. Although I cannot supply her with a verbatim quotation, we are in constant touch with the United Nations secretariat, and our understanding so far is that it is satisfied with the legality and authority we have to carry out that action.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, I urge my noble friend to resist the blandishments of noble Lords opposite to return to the United Nations. It is obvious that the allies are working within United Nations resolutions. Returning to the United Nations would merely delay matters and give Saddam Hussein a little more breathing space to enable him to continue to persecute the Kurds and the Shi'as. Surely we should continue with the present policy and not necessarily return to the United Nations?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. In rather less noble fashion, I suspect that Saddam Hussein has probably not read of the actions—my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham will be able to help me with this—of Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator. I suspect that he is at least a spiritual friend in the strategic sphere of that eminent Roman general. One of the results of his cut-and-run tactics has been to make it more difficult for the United Nations and the coalition forces to know when to strike. There comes a moment when we can delay no longer. We should be playing his game if we tried to delay any operation in the way that some noble Lords opposite appear to be suggesting.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I support the action that has been taken? However, does he agree that the action of the pilot who refused to fire his ammunition because he was afraid of killing civilians was admirable? He showed determination while risking his life and then refused to fire in case there were civilian casualties. Should not that attitude—determination plus restraint—be the hallmark of the operation?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord and wholly agree with him. As I said in the Statement, there were two pilots in Tornados at the target. The one who failed to discharge his bombs for the reasons given by the noble Lord was the first to attack. The second pilot discharged his bombs, and, as far as we know, hit his target. The two aeroplanes then went round again to ensure that they had hit the target and that there had been no mistake. Unfortunately it was difficult to see because of the amount of dust in the area at the time.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Mr. Basahni and Mr. Telebahni are immensely grateful to the allies for keeping to Resolutions 687 and 688, whatever the word "allies" means, because for them that is their life every day? Will he never forget that the majority of the Iraqi people are good people who live in daily fear of an evil man? If ever we give up that resolve, that evil man will kill innocent Kurds and Shi'as, whatever we say in this House or any other place.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am of course grateful to my noble friend for what he has said in drawing our attention to the plight of the Kurds. I am sure that your Lordships are aware that the Iraqi Government continue an economic blockade of northern Iraq. As a result, the United Nations, supported by Western donors including this country, is mounting a major humanitarian operation there. For the past several weeks the Iraqis have been harassing United Nations convoys. They have planted bombs and obstructed the issue of travel permits for Iraqi Government-controlled territory. We deplore such harassment. Of course we support fully the United Nations efforts to ensure that humanitarian efforts get through. As I am sure my noble friend is aware, we are committed to protecting the Kurds in northern Iraq through the northern no-fly zone. He will also know that it was with considerable pleasure we registered the fact that on Christmas Eve the Turkish National Assembly renewed Operation Provide Comfort, which I hope my noble friend's Kurdish friends will also take as evidence of our commitment to help them.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords—

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the allotted 20 minutes has now elapsed. I suggest that we continue with the business on the Order Paper.