HL Deb 26 January 1998 vol 585 cc39-49

4.53 p.m.

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 to a Private Notice Question which has been asked in another place on Iraq. The Statement is as follows:

"The present regime of weapons inspections was put in place in Iraq following the Gulf War as part of the ceasefire agreement. Its objectives are to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and to prevent Iraq reviving the capacity to develop, produce, stockpile and deploy such weapons of mass destruction. Despite repeated obstruction from the Iraqi regime, UNSCOM's achievements have been significant. Since its inception, UNSCOM has destroyed 38,000 weapons with the capability to deliver chemical and biological agents; it has also destroyed significant quantities of production equipment and associated facilities. But serious gaps remain in Iraq's Full. Final and Complete Declarations, particularly in the field of biological weapons. Were UNSCOM's work to be halted now, Iraq would be able to generate biological weapons within a matter of weeks, and could achieve a chemical capability within months. It is vital for the continuing security of the region and more widely that UNSCOM be allowed full and unrestricted access to all sites that it wishes to inspect and as much time as it needs to complete its task.

"On 12th January UNSCOM began a new inspection aimed at uncovering concealed activities. The Iraqi regime blocked the inspection on the specious grounds of an alleged US bias on inspection teams. This particular inspection, led by Mr. Scott Ritter, a US citizen with a distinguished record of work for UNSCOM. consisted of 44 personnel from 17 different countries. UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler was in Baghdad last week for talks with Tariq Aziz aimed at resolving the crisis. The results were disappointing. Ambassador Butler's briefing to the Security Council on 23rd January immediately after his visit made clear that the Iraqis are determined to persist with their policy of obstruction. Iraq's attempt to impose a moratorium on inspections of so-called "Presidential" sites pending the outcome of technical evaluation meetings, announced during Ambassador Butler's visit, is unacceptable, as is the deadline given by Saddam Hussein for UNSCOM to complete its work. It is not for Iraq to dictate terms and conditions to the Security Council. Unrestricted access to all sites is essential for UNSCOM's work both now and for longer-term monitoring. The technical evaluation meetings, which will look at Iraq's declarations on its past programmes, are an entirely separate issue.

"We are actively pursuing a diplomatic solution to Iraq's latest attempts to obstruct the vital work of UNSCOM. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and others are in regular contact with colleagues on the Security Council, in an effort to defuse the situation. But we cannot rule out military action if the diplomatic approach fails to shift Saddam Hussein's stance. As a precautionary measure, HMS "Invincible" arrived in the Gulf on 25th January, and is engaged in work-up training with allied naval forces off the coast of Bahrain. We are keeping the situation under close review and have not ruled out further deployments should the crisis continue. There are no immediate plans to deploy extra forces. HMS "Illustrious", which is at present in Gibraltar, will embark a detachment of RAF Harriers tomorrow and will then commence work-up training in the Mediterranean.

"Iraq is fully aware of its international obligations and what it needs to do for the process of relaxing sanctions to begin: relevant Security Council resolutions make this perfectly clear. The Security Council is united in its demand for Iraqi compliance. There is no question of entering into negotiations with Iraq. Security Council resolutions are non-negotiable.

"The Government remain very conscious of the sufferings of the Iraqi people, with whom we have no quarrel. The UK has provided £94 million in aid to the Iraqi people since 1991. Much of this money has been used to fund projects by UK NG0s, including Mines Advisory Group, which is also involved in a major mine-clearing operation, and Save The Children Fund, which is focusing on water and sanitation projects aimed at helping children. The UK has also co-sponsored successive UNSC resolutions, allowing Iraq to export oil in exchange for humanitarian aid. For several years, Saddam chose not to avail himself of the opportunity to provide for his people under this scheme; since its implementation in 1996, oil-for-food has faced a number of cynical obstructive tactics by the Iraqi regime. For the sake of the people of Iraq. we remain prepared to discuss with Iraq ways of improving the scheme's effectiveness."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, the Opposition share the Government's deep concern about the current situation in Iraq. Likewise, we, too, deplore this latest attempt by Saddam Hussein to seek to defy the will of the international community by refusing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. In government and now in opposition we supported the UN efforts to end President Saddam Hussein's programmes for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction and to enforce the UN no fly zones over Iraq. These were the conditions laid down by the UN if international sanctions on Iraq were to be lifted.

The position is straightforward. The international community has guaranteed to lift sanctions when Iraq has been given a clean bill of weapons health: when a monitoring process is in place to stop such weapons being rebuilt; and when Saddam Hussein is no longer able to threaten his neighbours with germ warfare or with chemical and nuclear weapons. If Saddam Hussein wants sanctions to be lifted, the key to achieving this lies in his own hands: namely, 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.

Faced with the current unacceptable situation, the Opposition welcome the Statement made today and welcome the statement made by the Security Council on 14th January. The latter deplored Iraq's decision to halt the work of UNSCOM's inspection team and determined that such a failure by Iraq to fulfil its obligations under Security Council resolutions was unacceptable and a clear violation. The Opposition also welcome the Government's policy to stand firm with the United States in taking whatever action is necessary to ensure that the Security Council's decisions are respected, and to make it clear that Saddam Hussein has no choice but to comply with UN weapons inspections in Iraq.

I take this opportunity to ask the Minister six short questions in connection with the Statement. First, given that Foreign Minister Primakov acted as an intermediary in the previous crisis, has the Security Council asked the Russians to take any action to help to resolve this present crisis, given their special relationship with Iraq? What indications have France, China and Russia given that, together with the United Kingdom and the United States, they too will not rule out any option to ensure that Saddam Hussein respects the will of the international community? Have any other members of the Gulf coalition taken the sensible precautionary defence measures of the United Kingdom? Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons we are able to play such an important role is because of our ability to project forces into the region at short notice, such as the deployment of the aircraft carrier HMS "Invincible"? Can the Minister confirm that the foreign policy based line of the strategic defence review recommends the retention of Britain's aircraft carrier capability?

In another place this afternoon the Minister indicated that he would consider a relaxation of the oil-for-food programme if used for humanitarian purposes. Can the Minister provide the House with details of what the Foreign Secretary might have in mind? Do the Government agree that the success of the Gulf operation in 1991 depended greatly on the support of Kuwait and Iraq's neighbours? In the event of military action against Iraq, does the Minister believe that such similar support would be forthcoming?

On the subject of the Arab League, does the Minister agree that there is a dangerous perception of an anti-American backlash among Arab states, some of whose views are based on the belief that the US will never lift sanctions while Saddam Hussein is in power, therefore giving him no incentive to comply; that sanctions have caused the Iraqis to suffer disproportionately; that the Americans operate a double standard in respect of the treatment of Israel and Iraq; and their fear that a severely weakened American President facing a domestic crisis might look to enhance his reputation on the international stage? What impact do the Government think the refusal of Arab states to endorse a military solution to the Iraqi crisis has had on US/Arab relations? What implications does this have for the future security of the region and the influence and credibility of the United States to negotiate in a future crisis? From these Benches I assure the Government of our committed and unconditional support in the action they take to ensure that Iraq co-operates fully with the United Nations.

5.5 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, I rise to pledge the support of my noble friends on these Benches for the sombre statement the Minister has repeated to the House. Will the Minister remind the House that one of the reasons we have to press for completion of UNSCOM's mission is that Saddam Hussein has clearly demonstrated in the past that he is not to be trusted on the matter of weapons manufacture? Indeed, there have been several occasions when Iraq has declared that all has been revealed when we have discovered subsequently that all has not been revealed. That was particularly the case after General Hussein Kamal had fled to Amman and produced further information. That lack of trustworthiness is to be noted in the fact that when Hussein Kamal returned to Iraq under promise of amnesty he and his family were brutally murdered in Baghdad.

If anyone is in doubt about the nature of the regime they should note that only last week some eight people were brutally murdered in Amman—five of them Iraqi citizens and three of them not—presumably by agents of Saddam Hussein. It is because we are dealing with someone who is not open to the normal diplomatic niceties that we have to insist that UNSCOM is able to complete its mission.

On the question of humanitarian aid, as the Minister knows, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and I went to Baghdad a couple of years ago to study the situation. We were convinced of the dire need of the Iraqi people to receive more help in terms of medicine in particular but also food and other supplies. We have found our advocacy of the easing of sanctions positively frustrated by the attitude of Saddam Hussein and by his general behaviour. We also noted that while the Iraqi Government claim to be short of cash as regards the essential needs of their citizens, there appears to be no shortage of cash for the continued building of presidential palaces and monuments.

I refer to a point made by the Opposition spokesman. Will the Minister consider carefully whether there are ways to improve the somewhat bureaucratic process of delivering the oil-for-food programme to the people of Iraq? As the statement mentioned, we have no quarrel with the people of Iraq, but there is a need to use every possible avenue to help them while not helping their unfortunate ruler.

5.7 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank both the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Steel, for their support. I regret that it was a sombre statement that I had to repeat to the House this afternoon, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said. It is reassuring that the House is so united on these points. I thank both noble Lords for their comments.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked a number of detailed questions which I shall now try to answer as best I can. He asked in particular about the role of Mr. Primakov as an intermediary. The Statement mentioned that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is in touch with our colleagues on the Security Council both collectively and bilaterally. As I understand it, all attempts will be made to resolve this crisis through diplomatic channels. I am sure that Mr. Primakov will take part in the discussions about the most suitable way of approaching such diplomatic channels.

As regards our colleagues in France. China and elsewhere, it is worth noting that the Security Council presidential statement of 14th January reiterates its demand that Iraq co-operates fully, immediately and unconditionally with the special commission. The council is determined that Iraq's failure to do so would be seen as a clear violation of the SCRs. The noble Lord also asked about other countries in the area. Of course other countries in the area have a part to play here. As we have seen before, Saddam's aggression to other countries in that part of the world has put them at times in a difficult position. We shall of course, through diplomatic channels, do everything we can to discuss the current difficult position with them.

The noble Lord also asked about the implications of the current crisis in terms of the Strategic Defence Review. I have had occasion previously to tell the House that the Strategic Defence Review will bear in mind the absolute necessity to safeguard the security of the people of this country. That is the obligation of all governments; it is one which Her Majesty's Government take quite as seriously as any of their predecessors.

The noble Lord, and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, asked about possible negotiations around "oil-for-food". We are not ruling out an increase in the amount of oil sold, but first we need first to ensure that the present scheme is operating effectively. Benon-Sevan, the head of the UN 986 1111 and 1143 implementation unit is working on a report of that nature. We look forward to receiving that report—at which time we shall discuss the expansion with Security Council partners. The matter will come under active consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, also talked about an anti-American backlash. I hope that we have made clear on other occasions in discussing the problems of the Middle East that these matters have to be addressed in a way that brings into play a number of different countries in that part of the world. It is essential to remember what we are dealing with in Saddam Hussein, who is attempting to dictate to the Security Council. Once again, the Government of Iraq have shown their utter contempt for the will of the whole international community. We must not lose sight of that point.

The questions raised by the noble Lord. Lord Steel, about the capability of Saddam Hussein to build up his arsenal of weapons must he matters for your Lordships' House to keep in constant view. UNSCOM has repeatedly stated that we do not as yet have the full picture. Iraq's declarations on its weapons of mass destruction leave many questions unanswered. Particular concern ranges around the questions of biological and chemical warfare programmes. Prior to the Gulf War. Iraq produced enough chemical and biological weapons material to kill the world's population several times over. It continues to try to procure weapons technology. UNSCOM has destroyed more weapons than were destroyed in the course of the Gulf War. Its achievement should not be under-estimated. That is why the continuation of its work at this time is a matter of international importance.

5.12 p.m.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, it must be very gratifying for the Government to have the support of both the Official Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Party. I must confess that I do not feel quite so happy. I do not under-rate the difficulties facing the Security Council, and indeed leading members of the Security Council such as the United States and ourselves, in dealing with a dictator whose actions we know, which we deplore deeply and whom we would wish to see removed. But we may be about to embark on military action.

I have no difficulty with military action when I am quite clear that the cause is just and the objective is clear, but I am not yet certain about that. Is the purpose of military action, if it has to come about, to teach Saddam Hussein a lesson? Is it to re-open the means of inspection? Or is it to remove Saddam Hussein? We need some guidance about that if doubts are to be removed. In my judgment there is little doubt that military action of this sort will not only unite his people behind him but will also turn a certain number of Middle East countries which are not very happy about western Security Council policy at the present time towards moral support for him, with more consequences perhaps for the Middle East talks in which Israel and the other Middle East countries are now having a quite difficult time. I am sure that both countries will think very deeply before they embark on military action. However, as it is in the Government's mind, I should like to be a little clearer as to the objective.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in my opening Statement, I hope I made it clear to the House that every possible means through diplomatic channels will be taken in order to avoid the need for any military action. I say again to the noble Lord. Lord Callaghan, of course the importance of avoiding military action is uppermost in the minds of all of us. The Government will not wish to put the lives of British troops at risk if that is in any way avoidable. But the noble Lord asked: what is the objective?

The objectives are to secure compliance with the Security Council resolutions, not to remove Saddam Hussein. The Security Council resolutions were part and parcel of the way in which we ended the Gulf War. Undertakings were given at that time. The UN agreed as to how to go forward. We cannot now have Saddam Hussein flouting agreements reached at that time on the basis that there would be free access of inspection to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are not being developed. That is the objective: not to allow such weapons to flourish in Iraq; not to allow at this time, perhaps very significantly near to the 10th anniversary of the dreadful events that happened in Halabja, the awful mass destruction that took place there. We must bear that in mind. The objective is to ensure that such weapons are not allowed to proliferate in Iraq.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, perhaps I may follow up the Minister's remarks in talking about the overall objectives, and to follow also the remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, about the use of military force. I wonder whether the Minister can help the House a little more by spelling out what might be the military objectives. It is one thing to talk in overall terms, as she has; but as we found out only too clearly during the Gulf War, the military objectives had to be clearly spelt out. If we are going to put the lives of service men and women at risk, the country, as well as the services, needs to know what the military objectives might be.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his question, but I do not think we are at the point where spelling out military objectives can be of any help—certainly not to our own forces, and 1 very much doubt whether it would be to the forces with whom we would wish to be talking through UN channels. Such military objectives would have to be discussed through the UN and through the proper channels. I do not think that a Member of Her Majesty's Government saying in public what those objectives might be would be in the interest of the soldiers, airmen and seamen who would be defending Her Majesty's Government's stance at the moment. It is hardly sensible to spell out military objectives at this juncture.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, my question relates to what the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, said. Does the Minister remember that in our debate on 15th January I pointed out that one of the main factors in making the Palestinian peace process so intractable was the terror which exists in that part of the world because Saddam Hussein has the chemical and biological weapons? The Minister said that she would write to me about it. She did not do so. But she sent an aircraft carrier to the Gulf, and I take that as roughly the equivalent of a letter.

In that connection, in the diplomatic discussions going on with our friends and partners, particularly in Europe, is attention being paid to ensuring that no further help goes in the form of either expertise or equipment to Saddam Hussein which would assist in that programme? There is doubt as to whether the barriers to that have been altogether efficacious. It is sad for us that persons trained in this country appear to be playing a prominent part in the preparation of weapons.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord has not yet received a letter. I signed one to him in the past couple of days, and I apologise if it has not yet reached him.

The noble Lord mentions the position of our European Union partners. The European Union has been supporting the UN in its efforts to secure Iraqi compliance. Iraq has consistently been discussed at all levels in the European Union during the past month. Our partners are supporting the approach that the United Kingdom Government are taking.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness that we need to secure compliance with Resolution 688. But is she telling the House that a strike by a few Cruise missiles on whatever targets can be imagined within Iraq will persuade Saddam Hussein to toe the line when all diplomatic efforts have failed? Will she think carefully about the words of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, and the consequences to our relationships not only with the Arab world but with other members of the Security Council, particularly France and Russia, if the United States and Britain were to take action unilaterally?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course Her Majesty's Government and all our allies will think very carefully before the use of any military force. I remind the noble Lord of what I said in my Statement: we cannot rule out military action if the diplomatic approach fails to shift Saddam Hussein's stance".

It is not an offer to move into the kind of military arena which the noble Lord described to us. Far from it. It is only something to be considered should actions and discussions which are going on at the moment through diplomatic channels fail.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, my noble friend said that the military objectives would have to be discussed later through United Nations channels. Does that mean that in the opinion of the Government there will have to he another Security Council resolution before military action can be taken, or will that be unnecessary?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Iraq's failure to comply with UNSCOM is a clear breach of its obligations under Security Council resolutions, particularly Security Council Resolution 687, which was the ceasefire resolution. Iraq has threatened regional peace and security many times over the past 20 years. Its weapons of mass destruction programme is a clear threat to regional neighbours. Past experience shows that Saddam Hussein would not hesitate to turn the weapons against his neighbours or his own people.

The question of exactly what would happen in relation to military action would of course depend on the circumstances in which Her Majesty's Government and our allies find ourselves, should our discussions through diplomatic channels fail.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's Statement informing the House of what action has been taken so far. Can she inform us what action has been taken to warn British citizens and other western European citizens working and living in Iraq?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government issue advice on a day-by-day basis to places around the entire globe where there are difficulties because of the regime in power, because of geographical problems or because of natural disasters. Such information is available on a daily basis from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Gulf War ended too soon? A good deal of the trouble would have been avoided had it gone on for a little while longer. Will she ensure that should further military action be necessary—and I sincerely hope that it will not he—it is not circumscribed in the way it was previously? I hope that my noble friend will not answer that question!

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I wish to make one point on that. When the Gulf War ended agreements were made. There was a ceasefire agreement endorsed by a Security Council resolution. We all had reason to believe that we had secured the objectives. It is because Saddam Hussein will not stand by the ceasefire agreement that we are in the difficulty that we face today.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, would it help the Government's position if they were to make more of the humanitarian crisis within Iraq, especially with our European neighbours? We are talking about a country which has tumbled; 100 million dollars has been lost from the economy since the Gulf War. This is not the same situation as the Gulf War. There would have to be a lot of convincing of British people as well as our European neighbours. Will the Minister confirm the figures, for example, from UNICEF, that 960,000 children are malnourished? She mentioned humanitarian aid, but would it not he better to raise the humanitarian profile?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that the humanitarian profile of the suffering of the people of Iraq is well understood in the United Kingdom. We are very concerned about the suffering of the Iraqi people. but let there be no mistake about it: the suffering of the Iraqi people can be laid directly at the door of Saddam Hussein. He has made it clear that he has other priorities over and above the welfare of his people, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, reminded us.

Saddam Hussein has many palaces. Since the Gulf War he has built these luxurious presidential residences using money that should have been used to purchase humanitarian supplies for the Iraqi people. That includes Iraqi children, as we had cause to discuss in your Lordships' House some weeks ago. Saddam Hussein has spent the money on trying illegally to import weapons of mass destruction to replace those found and destroyed by UNSCOM. Again, the money should have been used to purchase humanitarian supplies.

No one in your Lordships' House should be in any doubt. Saddam Hussein has deliberately taken what we can only describe as a cynical, wicked decision to allow the Iraqi people to starve in order to increase pressure on the international community. The international community may be suffering from sanctions fatigue. He hopes that as a result we will give in and lift sanctions. It is difficult to believe that any leader of any country could use his people in such a wicked and manipulative way, but Saddam Hussein has done so.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I wish to raise one point in relation to the Russian diplomatic initiative to which the Minister referred. While the Russians may have followed the letter of the United Nations sanctions as regards trade, are the Government aware that the Russians have over the past two years given a great deal of technical assistance to the Iraqis in the identification of major new oil reserves and their potential development? Is the Minister further aware that the return for this assistance will come with the ending of sanctions? Do the Government recognise that we should at least bear this in mind in assessing the role of the Russians in negotiating for a solution? It may be that it influences for the good; it may be that it does not.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are aware of the points the noble Lord raises, but any Russia-Iraq deals have been essentially bilateral. They are not relevant to the United Kingdom or to the Security Council. I have made it clear that we shall try to pursue a resolution of this crisis through all diplomatic channels. If there are diplomatic channels through Russia that can be used. that is infinitely preferable to the military options which have been alluded to this afternoon.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I am sure the whole House subscribes to the Minister's description of Saddam Hussein and I am sure the whole House would be happy to see him deposed. But I think the whole House, too, would welcome the note of caution that was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. We have to think ahead. If Saddam Hussein calls our bluff. do we then proceed? Supposing we have exhausted all the diplomatic options, does the Minister believe that a process of bombing Iraq will achieve our objective? What is our objective? Our objective is our ability to examine the production of destructive weapons in Iraq. Does the Minister really believe that the military option will achieve that objective? It is much more likely to achieve a general conflagration in the Middle East, because the bombing of Iraq will inevitably rally substantial Arab support. Therefore, let us do everything humanly possible—I welcome her assurance that she will pursue diplomatic channels—but let us anticipate some of the consequences of the action we are threatening this afternoon.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I assure the House again that Her Majesty's Government will examine, as the noble Lord said. everything humanly possible to avoid the military option. However, we have to remember that Saddam Hussein could be described as a classic bully. The problem with bullies is that if one disengages too soon they do not step back. They go on with their objective, which may in the end be very much worse than confronting them at an appropriate moment.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House—

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am sorry but the House has agreed that discussion on Statements should not exceed 20 minutes after the Front Bench speakers.