HL Deb 05 June 1995 vol 564 cc1179-82

2.58 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to change the numbers or the role of British Armed Forces involved in peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley)

My Lords, as we announced last week, around 1,000 additional British personnel are deploying to Bosnia to reinforce our existing contingent. These men and women will carry out the present United Nations humanitarian and peacekeeping mandate and will enhance UNPROFOR's ability to protect itself.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, especially as a lot has happened since this Question was tabled and much since last Wednesday's debate. How much discretion will General Smith have to authorise responding with field artillery—now available for the first time—within the welcome flexibility provided by a rapid reaction force, in support of the peacekeeping troops, who have hitherto been lightly armed and extremely vulnerable?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as my noble friend makes quite clear—I agree with him—much has happened since his Question was tabled and since the debate in this House last Wednesday. As regards his specific Question about the discretion available to the United Nations commander in Bosnia, General Rupert Smith, obviously General Smith is bound by the UN mandate. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made quite clear last Wednesday, the protection force must be able to protect itself and take whatever action is necessary and justifiable in self-defence. Certainly when it does so it will have the unqualified backing of Her Majesty's Government. With regard to the detailed use of any individual weapon or weapons system, my noble friend will understand that I prefer not to comment.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, if events move towards an all-out war between the Bosnian Serbs and the other factions in that unhappy country, what will be the advice of Her Majesty's Government to the Security Council?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as we have made clear on a number of occasions, we do not believe that it would be possible for our troops, or for that matter the other forces from other countries taking part in UNPROFOR, to remain in that country should the unhappy situation arise to which the noble Lord refers. Their position would no longer be tenable.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, although many of us share the concerns that are being expressed, now that a substantial British force—additional British troops—is being deployed in the theatre of operations, does the Minister agree that it would be wise for us all to observe a brief period of silence and not say or do anything to make their already unenviable task more difficult and more dangerous?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Lord. Many commentators both in this House and elsewhere might bear his words in mind.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, what is the legal status of those British troops now sent to that theatre who are not subject to the UN mandate?

Lord Henley

My Lords, they are all subject to the UN mandate. They all come within the ceiling imposed by the UN. As the noble Lord will be aware, we are not up to that ceiling. Obviously if we wish to send more troops—we have offered 24 Air Mobile Brigade—we should need to seek agreement from the United Nations.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, we welcome warmly the release of certain hostages, including the RWF hostages. Will the Minister now assure the House that all possible international diplomatic pressure is being placed upon possible intermediaries who can deal directly with the Bosnian Serbs, particularly in view of the reported failure of a UN mission this morning?

Lord Henley

My Lords, like the noble Lord, I welcome the release of a number of hostages and particularly the release of something of the order of one third of those who are British hostages. I repeat the assurance that I gave to the noble Lord when we debated these matters on Wednesday; namely, that all possible routes will be pursued in seeking the release of those hostages and certainly all possible diplomatic avenues.

Lord Richard

My Lords, will the Minister accept that I do not entirely follow what he and the Government are trying to say? Does he recall that in the debate last Wednesday I asked specifically whether the result of the reinforcement meant that the number of British UN troops in Yugoslavia would have increased from 3,400 to something like 9,400? It will be within the recollection of the House that I thought—I believe that everybody would have thought—that I received an affirmative answer to that question. Is that the position or is it not the position? We understand, as the Minister told us, that the 1,000 troops are to be part of the British UN contingent. What is the precise status of the 5,500 other British troops who apparently will be used in Bosnia?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I believe we made it quite clear last Wednesday—I am sorry that the noble Lord did riot understand—that we are in the process of deploying those 1,000 troops that I mentioned under the UN mandate. There are roughly a further 5,500 troops of 24 Air Mobile Brigade which we have offered to the United Nations. That matter is being considered and obviously the United Nations would have to raise the ceiling of the number of forces permissible in the former Yugoslavia should it wish them to be deployed.

Lord Richard

My Lords, so was I wrong last Wednesday in assuming that 9,500 represented the number of British UN troops? If so, it is a great pity that the noble Lord did not tell me then.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord was somewhat confused about these matters. He is trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. I made clear then and I make clear now that we are in the process of deploying some 1,000 troops. The others have been offered to the United Nations. That was made clear in this House and in another place last Wednesday. I think that the noble Lord is wrong to try to imply that he was misled on that occasion.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell us what help the United Nations can expect from the United States since the most recent pronouncement of President Clinton? Does he agree that if the United States had shown something of the resolution of France, Britain and other countries, the prospects would now be much better?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is wrong to criticise our allies in the United States. They have offered considerable support over the years as we have dealt with this problem. I do not feel that anything is served by making criticisms of that kind. We are grateful for the support that they have offered and for the support offered from the French and other troop contributing nations.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, one of the things that has happened since last Saturday has been a meeting of defence Ministers in Brussels, which took far-reaching decisions. Does Russia go along with those decisions?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are aware of the meeting to which the noble Lord referred. It took place in Paris on Saturday. The Russians were represented by an observer. Since that observer raised no comments, we have nothing to show that they did not approve of the conclusions of that meeting. I can give the noble Lord an assurance that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will meet Kozyrev on Wednesday when he comes to London. Certainly he will make it quite clear to them that we see the Russian position as being of extreme importance. We should certainly like them to use their influence in both Belgrade and Pale.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government accept that, if the situation in Bosnia were to deteriorate further, the British forces operating in Bosnia or earmarked for Bosnia may have to be given rules of engagement which lie outside those necessary to operate the United Nations mandate?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord will be aware that we do not comment on rules of engagement in these matters. I can assure him that should it be necessary to seek to withdraw our forces and the United Nations forces from Bosnia should the position worsen, the planning for such a withdrawal certainly continues as a precautionary measure.