HL Deb 03 November 1998 vol 594 cc175-85

5.11 p.m.

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 repeat a Statement on Iraq which is being made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place.

"Madam Speaker, with permission I should like to make a Statement on the latest developments in Iraq.

"Last August Iraq informed the Security Council that it was suspending co-operation with UNSCOM and the IAEA other than on monitoring activities. The effect was to prevent both agencies from carrying out surprise inspections at sites which they suspected were part of a programme for weapons of mass destruction. The work of both agencies was confined to monitoring the status of sites which they had already cleared.

"The Security Council responded with Resolution 1194 which provided both the penalty for this violation of Saddam's agreement and an incentive for him to comply. As a penalty we suspended the regular review of the continuing need for sanctions. As an incentive we offered a comprehensive review if Baghdad returned to full compliance. Nevertheless on Saturday Iraq notified the Security Council that it would no longer co-operate with UNSCOM even on such monitoring.

"As the outgoing President of the Security Council, Britain convened an emergency session which agreed to a statement condemning the Iraqi action. It records the view of the Security Council that the Iraqi decision is a "flagrant violation" of Security Council resolutions and of the agreement they made with Kofi Annan on his visit to Baghdad in February.

"The Security Council's support for the statement was unanimous. It was fully endorsed by Russia whose spokesman said that Russia was deeply concerned about the Iraqi decision. Baghdad's attempt to close down the work of the inspectorates coincides with the evidence that Saddam Hussein continues actively to pursue his ambition to maintain his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction.

"Only two weeks ago a group of experts received the results of the tests carried out in French and Swiss laboratories to corroborate the US findings of traces of VX nerve gas in fragments of Iraqi missile warheads. The French laboratory found evidence consistent with the presence of nerve gas in the warheads, and both confirmed that Iraq had tried to decontaminate the warheads. For years Saddam has maintained that Iraq has never achieved a deliverable VX weapon. These discoveries expose his denials as one more lie.

"The greatest anxiety relates to Iraq's programme for biological weapons. UNSCOM has concluded that Baghdad's most recent declaration of its biological weapons capacity fails to give a "remotely credible" account of the programme.

"We are in close consultation with our allies to maintain a united front and to achieve the most effective pressure on Iraq. Today a resolution will be tabled in the Security Council which will demand that Iraq immediately restores co-operation with both UNSCOM and the IAEA. That strong resolution has been drafted by Britain and we shall be working to achieve unity around it. We want to find a diplomatic solution but we have always made clear that all options remain open.

"The latest decision by Baghdad is particularly perverse as the Security Council agreed only last Friday on the terms of a comprehensive review of Iraq's compliance with its undertakings. Those terms held out the prospect of a time-frame for the completion of the work of UNSCOM and the IAEA, which could lead in turn to the lifting of sanctions on Iraq.

"However, any such progress can be achieved only with the full compliance of Baghdad. So long as Baghdad continues to conceal its capacity for chemical and biological warfare and so long as it obstructs UNSCOM from revealing the truth about those programmes, there can be no progress towards lifting sanctions.

"Our dispute is with Saddam Hussein. We have no quarrel with the people of Iraq. On the contrary we have grave concern for the suffering they are experiencing under Saddam Hussein. Only last month Max Vanderstahl, the UN special rapporteur on Iraq, presented his latest report which concluded that there has been no improvement at all in the repeated violation of human rights by Saddam Hussein, including torture, summary execution, arbitrary arrests and persecution of minorities.

"Britain took the lead at the United Nations in pressing for a doubling of the oil for food programme. As a result Baghdad can now sell over 10 billion dollars of oil per annum to pay for food and medicines, which are in any case exempt from sanctions, and other humanitarian goods. I am pleased to report to the House that the latest information available to the UN confirms that as a result there have been positive improvements in access to food and medicine.

"Saddam Hussein appears to be gambling that the world will grow weary of his constant evasion and his repeated confrontation. His calculation is that we will eventually give up and abandon the sanctions regime without requiring him to abandon his ambitions for regional supremacy through weapons of terror. We must remain ready and resolute to prove him wrong. It would be too dangerous for Iraq's neighbours in the region to leave Saddam Hussein with the capacity to produce weapons that could wipe out whole cities. It would be too damaging for the authority of the United Nations if Saddam was allowed to break the current agreement he entered into with the Secretary General. He cannot and will not be allowed to win".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.18 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. From these Benches I confirm that, while we support all efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the present crisis, we also welcome the Government's determination to keep all options open, including military options, which, interestingly, even in general were absent from the Foreign Secretary's Statement on this occasion. Regrettably the events of recent days have proved once again that the only language Saddam Hussein truly understands is the language of diplomacy backed by the vocabulary of a commitment to force.

This is far from the first time that Iraq has severely tested the patience of the international community. Saddam Hussein is an expert player in a deadly game of brinkmanship and in brazen defiance of world opinion. Only nine months ago, in February, to avoid military action he undertook to "co-operate fully" with the United Nations and to provide immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to the UNSCOM inspectors. It is that same undertaking which Iraq is now so blatantly flouting.

At that time the Foreign Secretary rightly told another place: If Saddam were now to be permitted to set aside all those decisions of the UN, and if we were to walk away and to allow him to do so with impunity, there would be no point in invoking the power of the UN the next time we are confronted by a dictator threatening the security of his region or the lives of his people".— [Official Report, Commons, 17/2/98; col. 909.] Does the Minister stand by those remarks today?

At that time the Prime Minister said that only, "effective diplomacy and firm willingness to use force" brought about the agreement and that "nothing else" would ensure its satisfactory implementation. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government are prepared to display equal resolve through the international community now? Will she also comment on the deployment of British forces in the region, including the Tornado aircraft stationed there? Are there preparations to dispatch more British forces to the Gulf?

The Foreign Secretary's Office has rightly described Iraq's unilateral decision to stop UNSCOM carrying out its duty as "totally unacceptable". The Defence Secretary has said that Saddam Hussein should back down or "face the consequences". What discussions have taken place on the range of options now available to ensure Iraqi compliance with those UN resolutions agreed after the Gulf War? Does the Minister agree that, whatever options are chosen, they must end once and for all this dangerous see-saw of defiance which is so damaging to the authority of the international community? Furthermore, what information does the Minister have to support Richard Butler's belief that the present situation is the most serious confrontation between Iraq and the United Nations since the end of the Gulf War?

I welcome the Minister's statement that all options are being kept open. Will she confirm that clear strategic objectives will lie behind any threat of air-strikes? What discussions have been held with the other members of the Security Council on the military option, in particular with France and Russia? What indications are there that they would support the threat of such action? What steps will the Government take to ensure that a resolute stance against Iraq will be backed by the Gulf states?

I also wish to ask the Minister about allegations made by the Iraqi defector, Sami Salih. He alleged that there was wholesale breaching of UN economic sanctions; that Iraq never had any intention of complying with the terms of the UN weapons inspection teams; and that he had seen "missiles hidden all over Iraq". Following those allegations, what action did the Government take through the UN to ensure that economic sanctions are watertight and that arms inspectors could continue unimpeded?

Finally, will the Minister take this opportunity to comment on the resignation of Mr. Butler's deputy, Scott Ritter? In September he accused the British and American governments of weakness and duplicity; of creating an illusion of arms control in Iraq but in reality refusing to support planned inspections of presidential sites. In September, a Foreign Office spokesman responded to Mr. Ritter's accusations by saying, it is not a question of going soft on Iraq. It is simply that new tactics are required so that we can achieve the desired result of disarming Saddam". Will the Minister tell the House what those new tactics were, and, in the light of this week's events, what success they have achieved?

5.24 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, we on these Benches support the sentiment expressed in the Statement. It is totally unacceptable that the Government of Iraq should have weapons of mass destruction at their disposal at any time.

One position not stated was what steps the Government are taking to push the Secretary-General to intervene personally in this dispute. He was successful in February in bringing Iraq back into line on the question of monitors. Could the Secretary-General, after his trip to the western Sahara to examine the future of that country, be pushed to intervene directly in Iraq?

At present Iraq is suffering under the penalty of sanctions; the sanctions are biting deeply into the daily lives of those who live there. I supported the point made that the Government have no animosity towards the people of Iraq. However, it must not be forgotten that many thousands of children are dying through a lack of medicines and food. What position are the Government taking in order to ensure that food given to Iraq through the oil-for-food deal is being distributed equally? A body of evidence suggests that, while quite a lot of food is reaching the area around Baghdad and the north, far less is reaching the south of the country.

The military option seems to be touted as the only one open to us. Will the Government make sure that, before the military option is used, there is a clear purpose to any military action? The lessons learnt from the attack on Sudan are still fresh in the mind.

What ability do the Armed Forces presently have to mount significant attack? To what extent would it be necessary to wait for such forces to be available? I realise that the Minister may not be able to answer that question.

Finally, we should not forget the effect that military action would have on the Arab nations and on their viewpoint and support for Saddam Hussein. A strike without clear political and military objectives which was seen to hurt the Iraqi people rather than the Iraqi leadership could do far more damage than good among the Arab nations.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for their support on this issue. Perhaps I may reiterate on behalf of my right honourable friend that all options are being kept open. On the one hand, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, seemed to imply that we were moving quickly towards military action; on the other, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, needed a little reassurance that military action had not been ruled out. There is a diplomatic path which is presently being pursued. But I repeat what my right honourable friend has said; namely, that no options are closed off. All options are therefore open, including the military one. But it is right and proper to pursue the diplomatic paths properly first.

I agree wholeheartedly with the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that Saddam Hussein is picking a fight with the Security Council of the United Nations. He has in effect broken his solemn word given to Kofi Annan earlier this year.

Our current efforts in the Security Council are aimed at sending a firm message to Saddam Hussein that he will not achieve his aim of securing the lifting of sanctions by defying the Security Council—by defying in effect the will of the international community. That is what we are presently working towards in the wording that is being discussed in the Security Council. We are looking for the path of effective diplomacy. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that the Government are fully resolved on this issue. We are of course taking one step at a time in that diplomatic effort.

Both noble Lords raised the question of military capability in that part of the world. The fire power that Her Majesty's Government have is the same fire power that we had earlier this year. Different parts have been moved in and out, but the capability remains the same as it was earlier this year. If it comes to military action—and I am sure that all your Lordships hope that that will not be the case—there will be clear strategic objectives and all the options will be discussed.

I was asked particularly about the Gulf states. On 27th October Foreign Ministers of the EU and the Gulf Co-operation Council member states issued a joint communiqué supporting the full implementation of all Security Council resolutions. It is clear that, like us, the Middle East governments would prefer a diplomatic solution, but they are aware of Saddam's record and the threat that he poses. They insist that he must comply with the Security Council resolutions and that he will be responsible if he fails to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, raised the question of Mr. Scott Ritter's resignation. We all share Mr. Ritter's frustration with the years of Iraqi attempts to thwart UNSCOM and in particular with Iraq's latest decision to restrict still further its already limited co-operation. But Security Council support for UNSCOM remains firm. It is not for us to judge Mr. Ritter's decision to resign, but we regret the loss of a dedicated and experienced member of UNSCOM.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, is right that there is still work for UNSCOM to do. The October report of UNSCOM made clear that there was still work to do on chemical weapons, ballistic weapons and especially biological weapons. The latest six-monthly IAEA report in October indicated its assessment that all outstanding questions should continue to be addressed under the ongoing monitoring and verification process.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, raised the question of Mr. Kofi Annan's involvement. The Security Council is at the moment discussing the resolution. The Secretary General will be kept fully abreast, no doubt on an almost hourly basis, of how the discussions are continuing.

Her Majesty's Government have been at the forefront of trying to ensure that humanitarian aid gets to where it is needed in Iraq. We have done everything we can with regard to the oil-for-food provisions. While those provisions have been increased to some 10 billion dollars, food and medicines were in any case exempt from sanctions. I would regret it enormously if children were suffering in any part of Iraq, but the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, must put the blame where it belongs, fully and squarely at the doorstep of Saddam Hussein.

5.34 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, we are in a pickle, are we not? I suspect that Saddam Hussein will run true to form and behave as he has in the past. We shall then get very cross and he will be bombed. Because he is bombed, he will not allow any monitors in the country. The terrible dilemma is that we should never dare to use the ultimate amount of force which would be necessary, which is to put infantrymen on the bridges in Baghdad. That would be the only way to take control. You can bomb until you are blue in the face, but it will be no use except in support of forces on the ground, when it would be sensible. I do not say this to embarrass anyone. When we consider the force option we should think about what would happen if we bombed Saddam and he ignored it and carried on behaving as he had before. A few factories would have been bombed and the RAF would have had a lovely time practising bombing. That is the danger which we face.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that the RAF would at all enjoy such a dreadful task, if it came to it. The position is extremely grave, but I stress that this is not a time to project forward to what may or may not happen on a military basis, particularly in an open debate in your Lordships' House. Diplomacy is now taking its course in the appropriate forum, which is the United Nations Security Council. I have made clear that all options remain open and that those options include the military option. It is the responsibility of all of us to consider the strategic points put forward by the noble Earl.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, the government Statement this time has achieved a new level of irenic tone in that it seems to be hoping for international law to prevail without violence. On many earlier occasions a hankering after a final solution by force of arms has been detectable. The Government are to be congratulated on having used their chairmanship of the Security Council to achieve such a just, equitable and law-abiding approach to this new crisis. Can the Government now take one step further forward and say that force will not be used without a new United Nations Security Council resolution? If such a resolution is available, the use of force would undoubtedly be legal; if it is not available, the use of force in such circumstances would not be undoubtedly legal.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, throughout this whole unhappy saga the Government have always hoped for a non-violent solution to this problem. The Government hope today for a non-violent solution to this problem. In that respect the position of Her Majesty's Government has remained consistent throughout. I can assure my noble friend Lord Kennet that Her Majesty's Government will not act unlawfully.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, is the Minister perhaps understating her enthusiasm for what she described as positive improvements in access to food and medicines? Is it not the case that there was a serious interruption of aid from humanitarian agencies in June and July and that the Iraqi Foreign Ministry then allowed goods into the country? If there has been some change of heart by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, does she see any sinister motives in that?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is not for me to look into the mind of Saddam Hussein for sinister motives. He has a consistent record of preferring to exploit the suffering of his own people rather than of allowing the international community to help the people of Iraq. I repeated what my right honourable friend said in another place. It is the United Nations that has confirmed that, as a result of the changes made in the oil-for-food arrangements, there have been positive improvements in access to food and medicine in Iraq. That is a report of the United Nations, not of Her Majesty's Government. We must all hope that it is true. As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, pointed out, there may be parts of Iraq to which the benefits of the aid are not getting through. I am afraid that that would be entirely consistent with what we have seen of the way in which Saddam Hussein has behaved in the past. There are parts of Iraq which clearly do not have access in the way that more favoured areas do.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, while expressing my support for the Government's present attitude, does the Minister agree that we cannot discuss this situation either in terms of the activities of the Iraqi government in producing weapons of mass destruction. or in terms of the provision of humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq—which all of us must wish to see—without recognising the cardinal fact that the Saddam Hussein regime is not a government as understood in international law? It is a group of people who have seized power, who maintain it by ruthless elimination of all elements of opposition, actual or even potential, and upon whose word nothing can be placed.

We are not dealing with a country which may commit aggression against or threaten a neighbour; we are dealing with something which is beyond that kind of consideration. One can only sympathise with Her Majesty's Government and the other members of the United Nations who have to try, through the admitted procedures, to frame their position while always recollecting the truth of the situation: that as long as this regime persists the danger to the international community and the sufferings of the Iraqi people will continue.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has said, as far as both weapons of mass destruction and humanitarian aid are concerned.

Iraq has maintained that it has never weaponised VX. That claim has been shown to be untrue by the United States' tests on warhead fragments. In addition, those tests have been verified by further tests in France and Switzerland. Those who claim that this is merely the word of the United States, have seen that word corroborated by other analyses in Switzerland and France. That demonstrates that the word of Saddam Hussein cannot be trusted by the international community.

Moreover, the humanitarian situation in Iraq is very grave indeed. We have already discussed the position concerning humanitarian aid, but the extent of human rights abuse in Iraq is very grave indeed, as Mr. Van Der Stoel's latest report has exposed. The violations include arrest, summary execution, torture, ethnic cleansing, the persecution of minorities and denial of freedom of speech. The list is endless.

I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. Iraq falls very far short of the standards that the international community expects.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I acknowledge entirely the point that the Minister has made about the possibility of all options being considered. Does she agree that the contribution which the armed forces make to the overall position of Her Majesty's Government is absolutely essential, and that the arming, equipping and manning of the armed forces—in this case particularly the Royal Air Force—to achieve the position required is essential?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble and gallant Lord. The contribution made by Her Majesty's armed forces—and in this instance particularly by the RAF—is absolutely vital in maintaining the credible threat of force. We have seen a consistent pattern of Saddam Hussein not complying with the diplomatic effort unless he believes that the credible option of force is open to us. I know that on occasions I have been reluctant to discuss in detail in your Lordships' House the equipment and dispositions of the armed forces. The noble and gallant Lord will fully understand the reasons for that. He is entirely right that the armed forces must be properly equipped for the very grave task that they may have to undertake.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I support the Government's Statement, and in particular the imposition of sanctions. I have two questions for the noble Baroness. First, how effective have those sanctions been? Secondly, does she know of any nation or company which is breaking the sanctions? If so, what representations will Her Majesty's Government make to the United Nations in order to discourage and dissuade those countries and firms from breaking the sanctions?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have no information on particular companies. I will make inquiries and, if it is possible to put any information into the public arena on that issue, I shall write to the noble Earl and place a copy of my letter in the Library of the House. I do not know whether such sanctions have been broken; nor whether Her Majesty's Government have information on that issue or whether it is proper for such information to come into the public arena. I shall make inquiries.

The noble Earl asked how effective have these sanctions been? One could argue that the sanctions have been effective to the extent that Saddam Hussein has been contained within his ambitions concerning weapons of mass destruction. We have seen on many occasions—three notably within the past year or so—his efforts to break beyond the sanctions. But sanctions have been very effective in keeping under control his overwhelming regional ambitions.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I appreciate the difficulty facing the Government, the United States' Government and all those who are concerned—as we should be—at the prospect of Saddam Hussein retaining weapons of mass destruction. We have surely reached the point where we cannot afford to mobilise ourselves and our opinions once again—this will be the third time this year—and then make an obvious compromise which would, I fear, undermine the credibility of the United Nations and, indeed, the credibility of the United States and the United Kingdom.

My strong feeling is—and I hope my noble friend can assure me on this point—that if we are not prepared to back up our words with deeds, we should on this occasion decline to mobilise ourselves in the pretence that we are going to do so. We cannot afford to bluff any more. I hope that the Government will make the correct decision to demand from Saddam Hussein really bankable assurances before we agree the next time not to use the force that might well be required.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the question of bankable assurances from an individual who has been proved to have lied on a number of occasions may be a very tall order. I assure the noble Lord that this is not a question of bluffing anybody. Her Majesty's Government are firmly resolved on this issue. The noble Lord said that we cannot afford to mobilise ourselves and then make a compromise. In a sense, of course, we are already mobilised. As I was able to assure the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, our firepower remains ready and in place should it be needed. That firepower is the same now as it was earlier this year.

It is right for Her Majesty's Government to pursue the path of diplomacy. It would not be right to move straight to the option of force without looking at the diplomatic option first. But no one should be in any doubt that the exploration of that diplomatic option is a sign of weakness. It is a sign of wanting to ensure that no military action is taken unless it is absolutely necessary. We are all very well aware that once force is used there will be the potential for loss of life. That is a very grave step to take—it is a very grave step to take for our Armed Forces and a very grave step to take for the people of Iraq. It is right and proper that we pursue the diplomatic option first but no one—no one in your Lordships' House and certainly no one in Iraq—should be in any doubt that we will look at other options if that does not prove to do the trick.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it may not be a coincidence that this brazen statement of Saddam Hussein has been made at a time when the United States has been weakened by the threatened impeachment of its President? While that matter must be one for the American people and for the American Congress, can she, through the diplomatic channels which are so tactful in these matters, inform the United States of what a tragedy it is that at this critical time in world history its President has been placed in that position?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I think it is quite a matter for question and speculation whether the United States has been weakened by the threatened impeachment of the President. If the United States opinion polls are anything to go by, that question is open to a good deal of analysis. I am not in a position—I do not believe anyone in your Lordships' House is in a position—to judge what is motivating Saddam Hussein to take this action at this time. We know that he started down this path in August. He was given further options, as my right honourable friend's Statement in another place described and as I have been able to tell your Lordships. Only this weekend he has made it clear that he will no longer co-operate with UNSCOM. Why now? There may be a whole range of reasons. The fact is that we are where we are. The international community has been threatened by Saddam Hussein, the authority of Kofi Annan has been undermined and it is now up to the international community through the United Nations Security Council to try every diplomatic course open to us to make the position clear to Saddam Hussein that he simply cannot behave like this.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I have to admit to slight surprise when I heard what the noble Baroness said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Shore. Will she confirm what she said that there has been no diminution in the capacity of this country and other countries of the United Nations to take military action—no diminution in military terms in their ability so to do?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord's surprise was in relation to what I said about the fire power available. I have taken advice on this point. It is quite an obvious point for us to raise at the moment. The assurance I have given to the noble Lord is one I was given before making the Statement to your Lordships' House today. If there is any reason for me to review that assurance, I shall of course make that position clear. I shall write to the noble Lord and make that clear. But the answer I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Shore, was, as I understand the position, in relation to Her Majesty's forces. I cannot at the moment answer the question in relation to other fire power available.

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