HL Deb 29 April 1999 vol 600 cc435-40

3.14 p.m.

Lord Glentoran asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the legal basis in international and maritime law for interrupting the supply of oil to Yugoslavia by sea.

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

My Lords, proposals for a maritime operation are still in the planning stages. We would of course take account of the legal implications of any planned NATO operation before agreeing to it. Any action taken will be in accordance with the law.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her usual clear and explicit Answer. However, I ask for a little more reassurance. Can she assure the House that the embargoes that are proposed will not damage Montenegro or undermine its government; that all friendly states in whose territorial waters these actions may take place have given unequivocal support and agreement; and, finally, that this embargo strategy will not force the Russians into breaking the embargo, with serious consequences?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the law in this area is of course complex. There is customary law, treaties and international conventions. I assure the noble Lord that all of these areas will be considered not only by NATO but also by legal advisers here. We have to make any embargo as effective as we can. NATO is working out military options. We shall take into account any rules of engagement as well as international law. The noble Lord referred specifically to Montenegro. He also mentioned Russia which is not the only supplier. and nor indeed is the sea the only route. We shall seek to make any embargo as effective as possible and as consistent as possible. However, we shall of course take into account the needs of Montenegro in the way the noble Lord suggests.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, as the spokesman of a party which has consistently supported the Government on the Kosovo crisis, and indeed pressed for an international protectorate at an early stage, will the Minister consider carefully whether the present planning by NATO, particularly of its proposed naval blockade but also of its bombing, takes fully into account some of the political repercussions? Will the Minister consider the vocal pleas made by Montenegro today; namely, that the effect of the severe bombing of Bar, its major port, and of its capital, Podgorica, is destabilising them and is an invitation to Milosevic to intervene in that country? That is a serious matter. Will the Minister consider carefully whether that situation can be avoided?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that we are in regular contact with Montenegro. EU Foreign Ministers decided on a package of economic support for those hit by the crisis, bearing in mind the particular needs of Montenegro. Mr. Djukanovic is in no doubt of our support for his political and economic reforms. We and our allies have also warned Mr. Milosevic—as I think I have already mentioned to the House on previous occasions, but I do so again because I realise how important this point is—not to move against Montenegro. If he does so, there will be grave consequences.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the Government take every care and precaution not to allow this undesirable and possibly illegal war to spread any further either by land or by sea?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord that this is an illegal war. The action that we are taking is legal. It is justified as an exceptional measure to halt the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe that we have seen played out and which we sadly continue to see being played out. I give the noble Lord the assurance that not only is the action that we have taken legal but that any future action will be legal.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how a sea blockade will stop oil going overland from Romania?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I have already indicated, NATO military planners will not be looking solely at a sea blockade; they will be looking at a number of issues. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear yesterday when answering questions on a similar subject, we understand that there are many different routes by which such oil may be taken. All such eventualities are being looked at.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that she assured the House last week that there had been no failure by NATO leaders, including the Prime Minister, to think far enough ahead about the matter of Kosovo. Why is it that the complex matter of an oil blockade is being considered now rather than weeks ago?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I told the noble Lord last week, as situations develop so does the planning. That is inevitably so. Naturally, when NATO leaders were together last weekend they looked very carefully at the question of an oil embargo. As the noble Lord will know, there is also an EU oil embargo. Your Lordships discussed that matter last week and it was discussed again on 23rd April. There has been no failure of planning. The planning has been carefully undertaken both within the EU and NATO.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, if the Government proceed with the oil embargo, will they have regard to the lessons of the sanctions busting carried out in Rhodesia, where the international oil companies—not least our own oil companies—showed themselves remarkably adept at evading all the laws that man could prescribe?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, not only will military planners be looking at that issue but strategic planners as well. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, should look carefully not only at the NATO planning but at the EU oil embargo to which I have referred. That was agreed on 23rd April and comes into force on 30th April. EU applicants, including some of Serbia's neighbours and Cyprus, are already associating themselves with it. So it is not only the current members of the EU but those who are hoping to join the EU which support the embargo. The noble Lord may be reassured to know that, contrary to some press reports, the United States is also implementing a comprehensive ban on oil.

The Earl of Strafford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the amount of oil coming into Montenegro through Bar is perhaps almost irrelevant and that the land routes for delivering oil to Serbia are highly relevant? The main road is very narrow—in some places tankers will have to slow down to two miles an hour—and there are numerous bridges and viaducts. Does the Minister agree that the land routes would be very tempting targets and that disrupting those routes would be a logical way of solving the problem?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope I have made clear in my answers to the questions of other noble Lords on this point that it is not solely an issue of being one route or, indeed, one supplier. Her Majesty's Government are very much alive to that fact. My right honourable friend, when he was answering questions on this matter in the other place yesterday, made a point of stressing the issue of other routes and the importance of dealing with them.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there will be great concern among many people about widening the scope of the war. Is she further aware that if action is taken which is deemed to be illegal and without the support of the United Nations, then, far from gaining friends, NATO is likely to lose friends at a time when it needs many more friends?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that any decision to widen the scope of military action will be based on international law and consistent with the rules of engagement. I have given an explicit assurance to the House on that point. I should also say to the House that, as noble Lords would expect, any such decision will be consistent with the political objectives for pursuing this campaign which my right honourable friend in another place, I and my noble friends here have spelt out on a number of occasions.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I have no problems with an oil embargo although, like my noble friend Lord Blaker, I wonder why it was not started weeks ago. The noble Baroness has not yet mentioned Russia. Have the Russians been involved in discussions about the oil embargo? Have they agreed? Will we stop a Russian tanker if one attempts to take oil in? Have we worked out the consequences of such action?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a fair and proper point. Of course we have no wish whatsoever to become involved in a confrontation with Russia. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the lines of communication are open between him and his Russian counterparts. We are still looking and hoping to work with the Russians on a sustainable solution for Kosovo. NATO heads of state and the Government made clear at the weekend that we still wish to pursue a constructive path with Russia. There have been a number of interchanges since last weekend between Russian politicians and politicians not only from this country but throughout NATO.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the oil being imported into Serbia at the moment is in the form of crude oil? Can the noble Baroness say whether, assuming that the bombing campaign against refineries is successful, that would not he a preferable way of knocking out the supply of fuel to Serbia's military machine?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am not sure what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is asking. Is he asking me whether we should be bombing supplies outside Kosovo?

Lord Avebury

Refineries, my Lords.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I am sure that a number of different options will be looked at in the planning that NATO is undertaking at the moment. Indeed, a number of different options have been raised by your Lordships. The important point that we must bear in mind is that any such action must be not only legal but consistent with the political objectives already articulated by NATO in regard to the military action.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, who in the NATO Alliance was responsible for determining the original strategy for the economic prosecution of this conflict, including legallly restricting fuel and power supplies? When did UK Ministers approve the original strategy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the strategies have been developing throughout the action and, indeed, before the action started. There has been interchange between all the leaders of NATO. As I have reminded the House on a number occasions, such action can only he taken by consensus within NATO. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary speaks on an almost daily basis to the US Secretary of State and to a number of other key NATO counterparts, as has my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. As the noble Lord knows, there was an opportunity for all the NATO partners to discuss these matters in depth at the weekend. The noble Lord should not think that all of these matters suddenly sprang up last weekend. There was careful planning before the action started and throughout the action there have been discussions between all key partners.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will remember that last weekend the Prime Minister laid heavy stress on this being a "just" war. One of the principles of a just war is that force should be used proportionately and moderately. Can we be assured that the imposition of the oil embargo and any further expansion in the bombing campaign—it seems to some of us that most of the suitable and justifiable targets are now being hit— will be in line with the Prime Minister's understanding of justice in war?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I agree that any prosecution of a just war must be consistent with the objectives of that war. That is the fundamental issue put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I hope that the noble Lord agrees—as does his party, I believe—that the political objectives that Her Majesty's Government and our NATO partners have articulated can be supported. Her Majesty's Government and all our NATO partners very much regret any civilian casualties in this war. Sadly, it is one of the awful truths that war cannot be prosecuted with any certainty that such casualties will not occur. When they do occur it is very much to be regretted. I remind the noble Lord of the appalling carnage which is being wreaked among the Kosovo Albanians by the Serbian forces. I also remind him that we are attempting to be moderate and that such an injunction is more properly addressed to Mr. Milosevic.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, would my noble friend agree with me if I suggested to her that, far from extending the war, the successful and legal interruption of oil supplies to Yugoslavia is a necessary and imperative component of the strategy to bring it to a successful conclusion?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is because Her Majesty's Government and our NATO partners are in agreement that the decision was taken at the weekend to look at the planning that would make such bombing possible. I stress to my noble friend also that it is important that any such bombing is carried out on a legal basis and in a way that is entirely consistent with the objectives that we have set. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, pointed out to us only last week, it is not sensible on the one hand to risk our servicemen's lives over Serbia on a regular basis and on the other hand to leave open ways in which oil can get into Serbia when we could possibly prevent such an eventuality.