HL Deb 24 May 1993 vol 546 cc68-76

6.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat in the form of a Statement the answer to a Private Notice Question which was asked this afternoon in another place. The Answer is as follows: The Foreign Ministers of the United States, France, Russia and Spain together with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs met in Washington on 22nd May and issued a statement containing a joint programme of action on the former Yugoslavia. They agreed to continue working urgently to halt the conflict—starting with further action in the UN Security Council on safe areas, monitoring of the Bosnian border with Serbia-Montenegro and the establishment of a war crimes tribunal—and to continue efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement building on the Vance-Owen process and intensified international efforts. They reaffirmed their view that sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro should be rigorously enforced until the conditions set out by the United Nations for their review are met, including the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb troops from territories occupied by force". My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and welcome a number of points in it. First, I welcome the fact that pressure to arm the Bosnian Moslems has been resisted. I also welcome the continuation of humanitarian assistance and the decision to go ahead rapidly with a war crimes tribunal. We welcome on these Benches, too, the continuation of economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro. But I very much hope that the decision taken some two weeks ago to tighten these sanctions has already been properly implemented. I welcome the decision to increase the international presence in Macedonia and Kosovo in the interests of preventing the spread of conflict.

I turn to one or two questions. Does this latest shift in policy mean that the Vance-Owen peace plan has been abandoned? The Minister referred to building on the Vance-Owen process. What does "building on a process" mean in this instance? Can he say whether Lord Owen was consulted on the latest proposals and what his views were on them? Secondly, can the Minister clarify the position on the sealing of the border between Serbia and Bosnia? If I may say so, the suggestion made in the joint statement from Washington that we are watching to see whether the border closure is effective is extraordinarily weak. What evidence is there that the Government in Belgrade are carrying out their undertakings in that respect? What actions are we taking now to ensure that they do? Is President Milosevic to be allowed to get away with rejecting international monitors?

It is somewhat surprising that the Minister has given no indication in the Statement as to where the safe areas are to be. Nor has he given any indication as to how they are to be made safe for civilians. We need to know rather more than we have been told if we are to be reassured that the Bosnian Moslems have not been abandoned by the international community, as their president was apparently saying over the weekend. Many Members of your Lordships' House will wonder whether the Bosnian Serbs have been allowed to walk away with the spoils of war. Will independent Bosnia survive or not? Will the Minister also give the House more information on what steps are to be taken to put pressure on Croatia to stop the fighting in central Bosnia between Bosnian Croatians and Moslems? Finally, can he say what the options are for the intensified international efforts to which he referred towards the end of the Statement?

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his honourable friend in another place but I must confess that I found it a dismaying Statement and a transparent climbdown. I should like to repeat the point made by my noble friend Lady Seear when a previous Statement was made that a succession of Statements or Answers to Private Notice Questions are no satisfactory way to discuss this complicated, tragic and extremely dangerous situation. It is high time that we had a proper debate in which many of the questions put to the Minister by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, can be properly discussed and properly answered in your Lordships' House. Until we have such a debate we shall get information in bits and pieces. We shall ask a few questions in a few minutes, as we are now, but we will end unsatisfied by the answers we are given and the information we receive.

I must confess that I find that the Washington communiqué, as I think it is known, in no way lives up to the scale of events which it is supposed to address. One could not find a more classic case of too little and too late. For months—I think I am right in saying that it is at least 11 months—the Government have resisted proposals made by my right honourable friend in another place and repeated from these Benches that safe havens be set up and that adequate protection be given by United Nations forces to the Bosnian Serbs. Those proposals have been consistently resisted. At that time they would have provided safe havens which were viable, which could have been protected and which would have provided the Bosnian Moslems with some way of life. Now, the Government have come round to those proposals in almost every detail except that the areas to be protected will be so small that they will be little more than refugee camps and, essentially, incapable of supplying themselves with the wherewithal for survival. This is a sad and deplorable tale. Moreover, as regards those protecting these enclaves —French, British, Spanish and Canadians—there are some notable absentees: the Germans, for so-called constitutional reasons, but, more importantly, the Americans and other members of the European Community. If, as we are told, we are forming a common European policy, in common ventures of this kind the absence of colleagues from the Community in these operations cannot fail to be noticed and deplored.

The communiqué reads: We note the pledge of the Belgrade authorities to close the Bosnian border and to put pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan". I repeat the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. Does anyone believe that statement? What faith do we put in Milosevic's words? How effective will the pressure be? Will they allow monitors in sufficient force to make those sanctions effective? Though the ultimate objective may be, the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb troops from territories occupied by force", there is—and I again repeat the point made by the noble Baroness—no mention of the areas to be given up and precious little sign of the political will that is necessary to make that happen. If the end of slaughter is of course desirable, it is also desirable to take steps to prevent the conflict spreading. That is a real international danger. One of the two danger points is Macedonia. What is the size of the international presence there? Is it sufficient? Is it being reinforced? The other danger point is Kosovo. What steps are being taken to see that the human rights of the Moslems in that crucial area are being properly protected?

If this is the first test of the move announced at Maastricht towards a common foreign policy and towards building a new pillar, it is profoundly disappointing. In another place this afternoon the Minister kept on referring to the absence of will on the part of the public to enforce more stringent measures. What, we have to ask ourselves, is the will of the Government? It is they who have to make policy; and it is they who should be leading public opinion, not appealing and explaining that public opinion renders them impotent.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for welcoming elements of the Statement. I shall endeavour to address myself in so far as I am able to the large number of questions posed by the noble Baroness. Her first question on the effectiveness of sanctions was one to which the noble Lord also addressed himself. She asked in particular whether we could believe the Serbian Government's undertaking which resulted directly from the Athens agreement.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord have enough knowledge and experience of that part of the world, as indeed do Her Majesty's Government, to recognise that it is unwise always to take the movers and shakers in that part of the world at their word. We are extremely conscious of the need to believe it when it happens. It is for that reason that a great deal of trouble is being taken to make sure that the sanctions; the undertakings that the sanctions are properly monitored between Serbia and Bosnia; and the undertakings given by the Serbian Government are addressed. To that end the governments and the Security Council will make sure that adequate steps are taken in that direction.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, also asked me effectively whether the Vance-Owen plan is dead and how can we build on a process by implication rather than on sound foundations. That was a very fair question. We have to recognise that the Vance-Owen plan has already produced some proposals which specifically include the withdrawal from territory taken by the Bosnian Serbs. That is what we have to build on and also endeavour to achieve. The noble Baroness also addressed the question of pressures to try to assist and accelerate that process. They are already being intensified. The agreement that was announced this weekend in America is one important step down that road.

Perhaps I may elaborate a little on what I mean by that. There has been a good deal of speculation in the press of late about the dangers of a division between the United States and Europe in the way in which they address the thorny question of Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia in general. It is fair to say that an important element of reassurance has been achieved during the course of the deliberations in the United States. I believe that we can safely say that the suspicions voiced in the press of late have been put behind us and that there is now a unanimity of view, both in Washington and in the principal capitals of Europe, about the process which we must now employ.

As regards whether the noble Lord, Lord Owen, was consulted, I am sorry to say to the noble Baroness that I cannot answer that question. I shall certainly endeavour to do so and write to her immediately. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about safe areas. They will be well aware that the idea of safe areas is given a favourable reference in the communiqué which they have both clearly read. The phrase used in it is that they, could make a valuable contribution". What is clearly important—and this underlies the general tenor of the answer that I am endeavouring to give to your Lordships—is that whatever we do in Bosnia has to be judged by two criteria: first, is it going to work in the context of our objectives and, secondly, is it going to be proposed by the Security Council in a spirit of unanimity? We have to make sure, according to both criteria, that, whatever policy we develop as regards safe areas, it must be a policy which is sustainable and which will work. I readily understand the impatience of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, on this matter. At the same time I say to him that I would rather take time over a policy and make sure that it has a chance of working, rather than rush into it and find that it is not sustainable.

The noble Baroness also asked whether an independent Bosnia is something which can survive. The matters to which she addressed herself and to which I am endeavouring to address myself now, are designed for exactly that to happen. The pressure as a result of sanctions on Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs,; the enforcement of those sanctions and all the pressure which we have been endeavouring to build up over the past few months, are designed to that end. I cannot predict whether that will work or not. All I can say to the noble Baroness is that there is clear evidence that sanctions are beginning to have a considerable effect.

As regards Macedonia and whether the conflict is likely to spread, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that that is the real question which should concern us. I draw his attention again to the communiqué which he has obviously studied with some care. Under the heading, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia he will have noted—and perhaps I may quote briefly from it—that the communiqué says: It is essential that everyone in the region understands that aggression against the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia would have grave consequences. We will support an increase in the international presence there in consultation with the authorities in Skopje. The United States is considering a contribution to this effort". I believe that all of us are aware that in terms of the risk of the conflict spreading beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia occupies perhaps a more dangerous place than many others. That is the reason why I believe that that particular clause was so much emphasised during the course of the drafting of that statement.

I also sympathise greatly with two of the other remarks made directly by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and more by implication by the noble Baroness. We are well aware of the remarkable contribution made by British troops in their humanitarian efforts in Bosnia. We are also aware that there are other nations who have contributed in a slightly less prominent way. We feel that there will be more troops needed in Bosnia and that it is up to the United Nations Secretary General to find those troops. We understand that there is a possibility that the Russians may be able to contribute a contingent. We shall see. I sympathise greatly with what the noble Lord said.

As regards the way in which we debate this important question in your Lordships' House, I can only add that I am sure that my noble friend the Chief Whip, even if he were not here to hear the noble Lord's remarks, will have them reported to him en clair at the first opportunity.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that it remains the policy of Her Majesty's Government not to agree to any measures in this unhappy situation which are likely to result in serious risk of death or injury for members of Her Majesty's Forces?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I would be less than honest with my noble friend if I were to give him the absolute assurance for which he asks. After all, several thousand members of Her Majesty's Forces have been risking themselves to some considerable extent over the past few months. The task which those forces have been carrying out has been very clearly defined indeed. Perhaps one of the reasons why the casualty rate has been so low is that the Ministry of Defence and the senior officers who have been running this operation in particular, have been very careful to follow the strictures so carefully enunciated by Field Marshal Sir Richard Vincent in another forum recently, that any operation of a military nature must above all have a clear objective.

I say also to the noble Lord that one of the reasons why there have been so few casualties is that our soldiers have been issued with the right equipment, not least of which is the Warrior armoured personnel carrier which has proven its worth time and time again. Therefore, I say again to my noble friend, that I cannot give him the absolute assurance which he needs. But the safety of our troops is certainly our prime objective. The last thing in the world that we want to do is to send them into an ill-defined civil war and put them at risk when the good that they can do is not entirely clear.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, while I recognise the complexities of the scene in the former Yugoslavia, which the Minister has described, does he agree that the core of the current problem is that, through aggression and ethnic cleansing, the Serbs have acquired 70 per cent. of the land of Bosnia? Is it the case that the Washington communiqué gave hope that the matter would now be resolved, if gradually? However, does he agree that sanctions themselves, however effective, will not persuade those Serbs to retreat from the land they have acquired? If he believes that they will, he should tell the House that that is the Government's view. If not, what other solution do the Government and their allies have in mind?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the record of sanctions in achieving their objectives at speed has not been universally reassuring. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that over a long period they have a severe effect upon those at whom they are directed. Let us wait to see whether in this matter the judgment of what I am told is the international community is vindicated. We are conscious of the dangers, as, I am sure, is the noble Lord, of becoming involved in a civil war in the sort of amorphous conditions which I tried to describe to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. We hope and believe that the sanctions will extend the effect of the Vance-Owen peace plan so that we can begin to exert pressure on the Serbs to withdraw. I cannot guarantee that. Much as I would like to, I cannot guarantee that anything will happen in the Balkans. All I can say is that that is the judgment so far. We shall see whether we are right or wrong.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, my noble friend on the Front Bench reminds me irresistibly of Mr. Bottomley and Mr. Wilson talking in 1965 about sanctions bringing down Rhodesia. Is not it the case that we have provided a fig leaf which says that the Serbs have won and that we now have to pretend that it has not happened? Would it not be much more honest to say, "They have won. We are not prepared to do anything. We are not prepared to sacrifice any soldiers". The bones of a Pomeranian grenadier, as Bismarck said, are not worth bolts spreading to the Balkans. Would not it be much more honest to say that they have got away with it, however unpleasant that may be?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, my noble friend tempts me, strangely, to go down memory lane in the matter of Rhodesia. I shall resist that temptation so far as I am able. I remind your Lordships and my noble friend that sanctions are designed, above all, to achieve a clear objective, which is the withdrawal from territory gained, over and above what they should have, by the Bosnian Serbs. We believe that in the end sanctions have an effect. It is open to debate whether sanctions are always effective without other kinds of help. Nevertheless, they are effective in the long run. I ask my noble friend merely to follow the advice that I endeavoured, rather impertinently, to give to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. We should wait to see whether they work.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I have wondered for some time whether we would have a Statement or debate in our House on what is happening in the former Yugoslavia. From reading the American newspapers, one sees that change has been taking place imperceptibly. I am surprised therefore that our chance to mention the matter today should arise as a result of a Private Notice Question and not even a Statement. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, I hope that we shall have a chance to study the matter carefully. I, for one, am glad that this country has not been drawn into a real war in Yugoslavia. There are many commentators who confuse the position with Iraq and the Falklands and who know not those valleys and that part of the world where civil war has continued for centuries. To that degree, I still commend the Government.

However, despite today's Statement and the Washington statement, I am none the clearer about what is happening. If we do not have a debate, the issue will come up in the Maastricht debate. Because what does a European foreign and defence policy mean? The Germans and Italians, in particular, have a great deal to answer for in recognising Slovenia and Croatia last year. There has not been a European policy. It has been a failure, and not even a glorious one. If we do not have a debate in the House the subject will come up in the Maastricht debate. I am sure that it is relevant.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is right when he draws attention to the danger of being sucked into a Balkan quagmire. I am sure that that is the common view held by every government who address themselves to this question. No one wants that to happen. On the subject of a debate, I am sure that my noble friend on the Government Front Bench will have heard the remarks of the noble Lord and of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and, as is always the case in your Lordships' House, due and careful note will be taken of them.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, will my noble friend say more about the war crimes tribunals which he mentioned at the end of his Statement? Have any terms of reference been drawn up as to any conditions under which they will be working? Have rules of evidence been laid down as to how alleged criminals will be arrested? Finally, will my noble friend say whether those engaged in committing the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia are informed that they will come before war crimes tribunals if they carry on in the way in which they have been carrying on?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that considerable publicity has attached to the question of war crimes tribunals. I am sure that that publicity has been well noted and listened to in Bosnia. So far as concerns what one might call the modalities of this idea, noble Lords will be aware that Her Majesty's Government support the rapid establishment of war crimes tribunals so that those guilty of atrocities may be brought to justice. In pursuance of that, I am told that a Security Council resolution is likely this week. I must add that a tribunal does not come into effect unless people are within its jurisdiction. In important respects, that is not yet so. Nevertheless, we believe that it is important to establish publicly, for the benefit of people who might be ordered or tempted to commit atrocities, that they will carry an individual responsibility, which was the point that my noble friend made.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are many people, certainly myself, who are relieved that the American military and the American people have persuaded President Clinton not to arm the Moslems and not to embark upon military air strikes in Bosnia at present? Is he further aware that the right course now, as well as keeping on the sanctions of course, is to do everything possible to bring the parties together to discuss the question again and again until they reach agreement as to how Bosnia should be divided, if that is the final answer? Will additional British troops be involved? Or shall we be able to withdraw any troops under the present circumstances? Will the Minister also reply to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Blackstone—I do not believe that he did—about what action will be taken to police the border between Serbia and Bosnia?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I referred with some enthusiasm to the unity of view which prevails between the United States and its European allies. All sides of the House will welcome that state of affairs. At present there is no suggestion that the Bosnian Moslems should be armed. Indeed, it is generally recognised that that course of action carries considerable dangers.

As regards bringing the parties together, it must be common ground that any kind of settlement must be achieved through consent rather than enforcement. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, for enabling me to underline that point. A number of dangers—of which your Lordships will be well aware —are attached to the enforcement of a settlement. Not least are the dangers to our own people and of becoming involved in the kind of quagmire which many noble, Lords fear. Equally, if the settlement is not accepted by those who are affected by it, the implication is that those enforcing it will more likely than not have to remain for a considerable time. That is something which few, including the United Nations, can afford.

I apologise if I did not answer adequately the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. As regards the enforcement of sanctions along the border between Serbia and Bosnia, we take that extremely seriously. Monitors, or teams of monitors, are being suggested to ensure that the crossing points are properly monitored. I am aware of a report in the weekend press suggesting that some border points are not adequately monitored. I am sure that the example referred to in the press report will have been noted with some care.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the use of British troops?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I thought that I had answered the question about British troops. At present there are no plans to add to their number nor to vary their existing humanitarian task. I said that it is hoped that the United Nations Secretary General will find the troops from elsewhere. It is hoped that the Russians will be able to make a contribution.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that as an aim the principle of containment must carry general acceptance far and wide as far as it goes? Secondly, does he agree that the aim of keeping out of a civil war must command support in general? However, will the Government bear in mind a new threatening danger which has not yet been mentioned; that is the possibility of the outbreak of civil war in Serbia? Milosevic is losing ground. His chief rival Seselj, who is a Bosnian, is rallying a great deal of support against concessions to the West. While we all wish to press Milosevic—I should like to string his neck—counter pressures exist. We must tread most carefully with regard to the Serbs, however angry with them we may be.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sure that it behoves all of us in your Lordships House to listen to my noble friend Lord Lauderdale, whose knowledge of matters Yugoslavian is well known. We are well aware that the situation in Serbia is complex and that a number of political cross-currents are at work. I am sure that the House will have noted my noble friend's comments. I too emphasise that the American statement addressed itself very much to the activities of Croats within Bosnia and that the possibility of sanctions being imposed on Croatia only adds to the general complexity of an already complex question.