HL Deb 02 February 1998 vol 585 cc455-62

4.28 pm.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to a Private Notice Question asked in another place on Iraq. The Statement is as follows:

"On Saturday, I held a two-hour meeting with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss how best to deal with Iraq's continuing refusal to grant full and unrestricted access to UNSCOM teams. This meeting formed part of our intensive efforts to find a diplomatic solution to this crisis. I am also in regular contact with P5 colleagues. I met Russian Foreign Minister Primakov on 26th January and spoke to French Minister Vedrine on 29th January. Our P5 partners are also active: President Chirac has sent an envoy to Iraq and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Posavalyuk is returning there after his talks with Tariq Aziz ended inconclusively last week. We support these latest efforts to try to end the deadlock.

"The UK is now taking the lead in the Security Council. We have prepared a draft Security Council resolution which we will be discussing with our Security Council partners. The SCR makes clear once more that Saddam Hussein must obey the will of the international community. He must allow full and unrestricted access to all UNSCOM teams and reveal all details of his past WMD programmes.

"Saddam Hussein is persisting with his attempts to thwart UNSCOM's vital task of destroying and dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. UNSCOM cannot carry out its duties properly while Saddam continues to deny access to presidential sites. Nor can there be any deadlines for UNSCOM to complete its work. The Security Council must be assured that all of Iraq's WMD and related facilities have been destroyed. Even then UNSCOM will have to go on working perhaps for many years to ensure that they are not rebuilt.

"Saddam must be left in no doubt of our determination to secure his compliance with Security Council resolutions. Although we are pursuing a diplomatic solution, we have not, nor will we, rule out the use of force. The best way for us to achieve a diplomatic solution is to prove to Saddam that we are prepared to use all means necessary to ensure that he complies.

"As a precautionary measure, HMS 'Invincible' has been deployed to the Gulf and is engaged in work-up training with allied naval forces in the northern Gulf waters. It will be replaced by HMS 'Illustrious' in due course.

"The United Kingdom Government are very aware of the sufferings of the Iraqi people. We have no quarrel with them. The difficulties and the hardships that they face result from Saddam's failure to meet his international obligations. Even when offered a chance to provide for his people through oil-for-food arrangements, he repeatedly refused to avail himself of the opportunity. Since the scheme's introduction. he has cynically obstructed its implementation on several occasions.

"The United Kingdom has repeatedly taken the lead in proposing and steering through the Council resolutions on oil-for-food. We are especially pleased that the Secretary-General will be reporting to the Security Council later today with recommendations to improve and enhance the programme. For the sake of the Iraqi people, we shall give his proposals our strong support.

"Iraq's WMD capability remains a serious threat. Iraq has developed the knowledge, the know-how and the equipment to produce biological and chemical weapons on a horrifying scale. Despite all that UNSCOM has achieved, we cannot he certain that important parts of that capability are not being retained. Without fully effective UNSCOM monitoring Iraq could produce enough anthrax every week to fill two missile warheads and could within weeks be producing a range of other deadly chemical and biological weapons. It is vital for regional and international peace and security that Saddam Hussein is stopped."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.33 pm.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her Statement. The Opposition remain resolutely supportive of the Government's objective to explore every possible diplomatic initiative available to resolve the current crisis. We continue to deplore Saddam Hussein's open flouting of the will of the international community through his now protracted refusal to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions. One can only be suspicious that his prevarication masks his determination to move his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to new sites, linked directly to impede the monitoring progress.

Our position remains as set out in your Lordships' House on an earlier occasion. If Saddam Hussein wants sanctions to be lifted, the key to achieving this lies in his own hands: full compliance with Security Council resolutions, including as a first step unrestricted and unconditional access for UNSCOM inspectors and an acceptance that it is for the chairman of UNSCOM to determine the composition of inspection teams, and not Saddam Hussein.

Equally, we on these Benches remain supportive of the Government's decision to keep open the military option should all these diplomatic efforts fail. We fully endorse the Government's decision not to speculate at this time of painstaking negotiation on the manifold military options available. If, however, force proves necessary, can the Minister give an assurance that clear objectives will be set and announced to the House at the appropriate time so that the many questions put to the Minister from noble Lords on all sides of this House are answered in full?

Can the Minister also inform the House about Britain's decision to draw up a new Security Council resolution to canvass support for the course of action being pursued by the United States and Britain? I was sorry to learn that this most important initiative was first announced to The Times and not to Parliament but, be that as it may, what are the objectives of this resolution? Will it focus exclusively on unrestricted access or will it be drafted wider to cover Saddam Hussein's breach of his international obligations?

Finally, given the terrible suffering imposed on the people of Iraq by Saddam Hussein, we welcome the proposal to improve and enhance the oil-for-food programme, because this can directly benefit the people and not the Government of Iraq. Can the Minister kindly enlarge on the details of these proposals, especially since the Government have announced today their support for them in this House? I reiterate our support for the Government in standing firm against the forces of tyranny and aggression. On behalf of the Opposition, I assure the Government of our continuing support for the actions they are taking to ensure that Iraq co-operates fully with the United Nations.

4.37 pm.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, this is the second Statement on Iraq within the past few days and I suspect it will not be the last. We welcome the Government's willingness to keep both Houses informed of progress and to insist that diplomatic objectives and resources must be explored fully first but that force cannot be entirely ruled out and that all necessary measures have therefore to be pursued. We all accept that the problem of dealing with the Government of Iraq and the personality of Saddam Hussein, dominating as it is, is a very serious one.

We also accept that what is now taking place with the UNSCOM teams provides a precedent for what undoubtedly will be other inspections for biological and chemical weapons with particularly appalling international regimes. May I ask the Government to clarify a little more what the objectives of any limited use of force would be? I was rather concerned to see the American Secretary for Defence, Mr. Cohen, quoted in this morning's newspaper as saying that military action can provide no adequate substitute for having UN inspections scrutinising sites on the ground. The question of what the purposes of limited military force in Iraq might therefore be, how far that takes us and what potential escalation might be involved does therefore seem to be a very serious one.

Secondly, stressing that we are acting on behalf of the international community, may we be assured by the Government that our allies in the United Nations and particularly our allies in the European Union are being actively consulted as this progress goes on? Can the Minister also assure us that the UNSCOM teams which, as the Government have informed the House, have been rather overstaffed with British and American participants, will be clearly representative of that full international community?

Lastly, as Mrs. Albright herself recognised this weekend that actions by the United Nations towards Iraq and actions towards Israel are closely linked, and that indeed the threat which Iraq provides is also a threat to Israel, can we be assured that the British Government in these consultations are concerned to make sure that UN policy towards the Arab/Israeli dispute also leads to acceptance of UN resolutions as well as in the case of Iraq? Opinion in the Arab world is being exploited by Saddam Hussein. The perception within the Arab world that the Israeli Government are able to get away with not accepting UN resolutions whereas the Iraqi Government are expected to accept them all in full is one of the problems with which we have to deal. Diplomacy has to be concerned with restoring peace to the whole of the Middle East as well as to Iraq.

4.40 pm.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for their resolute support at this time. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked for assurances that there are clear objectives and that these will be set and announced in due course. The clear objective is the implementation of the Security Council resolutions and in that respect untrammelled access of UNSCOM teams to sites in Iraq whenever and wherever they judge these to be right and not at the direction of Saddam Hussein.

The noble Lord raised the question of a Statement to the House in due course about military objectives. I am happy to assure the House that I shall make a Statement when I am able to do so, provided it is consistent with ensuring the security of British forces in the area, something that I am sure the House would wish me to stress.

The noble Lord also asked about the statement to be made by the Secretary-General expanding the oil-for-food provisions. At the moment those provisions extend to 2 billion dollars a year. As I understand it, the Secretary-General will suggest that they be expanded to 5.2 billion dollars. That will be a very considerable expansion, which will enjoy the support of the United Kingdom Government. We wait to see how other colleagues in the Security Council react. I believe that that illustrates very clearly the point I made: our quarrel is with Saddam and not with the people of Iraq. Our commitment to humanitarian aid for the people of Iraq is, I hope, amply demonstrated by the fact that we shall support the Secretary-General in that respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked very reasonable questions about the military forces in the area and the military objectives. However, I believe the House will agree with me that it would not be reasonable for me to answer those questions at the moment. They are being addressed and are under constant review.

The noble Lord also asked about the involvement of the European Union. It is always important to ensure that one's allies are moving in the same direction, but I remind the noble Lord that this is essentially a question for the United Nations. It is the breaking of United Nations resolutions with which we quarrel and it is through the United Nations that we shall seek to ensure that we reach a united decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked what the resolution was likely to contain. It is at the moment still under discussion. I hope that we shall be able to reveal whatever comes out of the negotiations with our allies, but at the moment the contents are a matter for discussion and negotiation.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked about the composition of the inspection teams. The UNSCOM teams undertaking the latest rounds of inspections comprise 44 personnel drawn from 17 different nationalities. I hope the House will agree with me that that represents not a complete domination of the teams by any single national group but the will of the United Nations as a whole.

4.44 pm.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that we have not yet exhausted all diplomatic means of persuading Saddam to comply with the Security Council resolutions, which is, as she said, the fundamental objective at which we are all aiming? While Mr. Primakov and M. Vedrine are still engaged in their shuttle diplomacy, we must allow them every opportunity to persuade Saddam to draw back from the brink.

Does the Minister also agree that Resolution 687 providing for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction does not itself authorise military action against Saddam in the event of his failure to comply and that it is therefore obvious that the new Security Council resolution about which she spoke will have to contain the authorisation for military action and will therefore have to have the support of France and Russia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that every effort must be made to pursue the diplomatic channels. We wish every good fortune to Mr. Primakov and M. Vedrine in their efforts to secure that.

The noble Lord also asked about Resolution 687. I believe that that resolution and its successor resolutions give plenty of authority to the UN to move forward on this issue. It is because we recognise the importance of pursuing every diplomatic channel that the United Kingdom Government are seeking a further resolution, not only to give further opportunity for Saddam to think again—we are attempting to give him every opportunity so to do—but also to demonstrate that this is not a question just for the United States, nor a question just for the United States and the United Kingdom nor indeed for the P5 countries but an opportunity for the whole of the Security Council to demonstrate a unity of purpose. We shall be looking for that unity of purpose to come from the whole of the Security Council.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, will the Minister accept that for the first time since this whole fiasco started in 1991 I am today encouraged by the heavy emphasis which is being placed on diplomatic efforts to solve this problem? Will my noble friend also accept that I am even more encouraged by the very substantial proposed increase in the oil-for-food provisions to be put to the Security Council today? Finally, perhaps I may ask my noble friend to bear in mind in relation to her comment that our quarrel is with Saddam and not with the people of Iraq—something which I have always accepted—that when governments wage war it is the people who die.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his welcome to the Statement and the emphasis which it places upon the importance of diplomacy and humanitarian aid to Iraq. The suffering of people when military action becomes necessary is well understood, but I hope that your Lordships' House will not be in two minds over this issue. I hope that your Lordships will recognise that. if military action becomes necessary, the cause of that military action will be the intransigence of Saddam Hussein and his failure to comply with Security Council resolutions and the agreements made at the end of the Gulf War as part of the price for ending that war. He has chosen to break those agreements. I am afraid that, if he continues in his intransigence, the difficulties that will flow from that can be laid only at his door.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the drainage of the marshlands of southern Iraq has given Saddam unparalleled access to two of his close neighbours with tanks and ground-to-ground missiles, which, despite being classified as conventional weapons, can traverse an area the size of Wales? With that in mind, will she suggest to her colleagues that, if there is to be bombing of Iraq—and we hope that there will not be—bombing of the dams in the marshlands of Iraq would restrain Saddam's military output and also restore the marshlands for the marsh people of Iraq, who badly need them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is aware of the dreadful suffering inflicted by Saddam upon the marshland Arabs. The noble Baroness makes suggestions about the way in which any form of military engagement might be taken forward. I thank her for her thoughts on the subject, but I am sure that she would not expect me to respond in detail to the suggestion she puts forward. An important point is involved here. The fact is that during its period of inspection UNSCOM inspectors unearthed enormous quantities of weaponry in Iraq, many more weapons than were used during the course of the Gulf War. They found 48 Scud missiles together with a large quantity of missile components; 38,000 tonnes of chemical weapons munitions; 38 chemical missile warheads; 690 tonnes of chemical weapons agents and 3,000 tonnes of chemical weapon precursors. In addition, they found a large biological weapons manufacturing plant dedicated to the production of anthrax and botulinum toxin. The UNSCOM inspectors believe that they have not yet found all the weapons. Knowing of that belief and of what has already been discovered, I hope the House is not in any doubt about the importance of UNSCOM continuing its vital work in Iraq.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, will the noble Baroness accept that we all share the horror at what UNSCOM discovered and the way Saddam Hussein is prepared to continue with the development of such terrible weapons? Nevertheless, many of us feel a real anxiety about his willingness also to use his own people as human shields in any military conflict. We feel that there may be a dreadful slaughter of ordinary, innocent people in Iraq with whom, as the noble Baroness said, we have no quarrel. In the long term that can only do immense damage both to this country and to the United States in our relationships with the whole Arab world.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I share the anxieties of the noble Baroness. Indeed, I do not know a single individual to whom I have spoken about the serious position evolving in Iraq at the moment who has not voiced exactly the fears put so eloquently by the noble Baroness. As a result of that, any action must be placed under constant review. I can assure the House that the anxieties expressed by the noble Baroness will be taken fully into account.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, bearing in mind the possibility that military action may be used, can the Minister say whether she envisages such action being intended to destroy the weapons to which we take exception or whether the aim will be to force or persuade the Government of Iraq to take that action themselves?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, any military action will be taken in the light of circumstances and developments at the time. It would be injudicious and wrong for me to go any further in making statements about military objectives when the United Kingdom has servicemen in the area. I hope noble Lords will bear with me in the assurance I gave earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that, as and when I am able to make statements to the House about military objectives, always ensuring that such statements in no way jeopardise the security of British servicemen, I shall make such statements and render myself accountable to the House.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, can the Minister say how many of the chemical weapons found by inspectors have been destroyed? It was part of the deal that not only should United Nations inspectors be allowed to inspect, but that, having been found, Saddam was under an obligation to destroy. How many weapons in fact have been destroyed?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I understand it, the UN inspectors uncovered and eliminated the full list of weapons I gave to your Lordships' House a short time ago.