HL Deb 26 July 1999 vol 604 cc1286-8

3.5 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden asked Her Majesty's Government:

What arrangements are being made to ensure that civilian victims of NATO bombing in Kosovo, whether Albanian or Serbian, receive adequate compensation for injuries sustained.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, our Armed Forces complied strictly with the laws of armed conflict, and in particular with the Geneva conventions and the first additional protocol to the conventions. Of course we regret any civilian casualties. Questions of possible compensation could arise only if unlawful action had been taken. We are satisfied that our action was lawful.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, thank the Minister for that response. However, she will not be surprised that I find it somewhat disappointing. She said yet again that accidents happen in the shape of injuries and deaths to the civilian population. That being so, there seems to me to be an obligation upon all of us who gave support to this action—I believe that that represents a majority of the people in this country—to accept some responsibility for the injuries and deaths caused to innocent people. Therefore will the Minister be good enough to think again in respect of her response to my Question?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is motivated by the best humanitarian principles. However, there cannot be a question of compensation. That would arise only if unlawful action had been taken.

NATO forces were very careful in their choice of targets. Of course anything that went wrong because of human error is very much to be regretted. But the fact remains that we are convinced that our action was lawful. We are convinced of the legality of our targeting and that our armed forces complied very strictly with the laws of armed conflict. In that case, I am afraid that there cannot be a question of compensation on this issue.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, the Minister will recognise that humanitarian aid will assist those who have been mutilated or otherwise seriously handicapped as a result of casualties. However, perhaps I may widen slightly the question to ask about compensation not for civilians in Kosovo but for our immediate allies. As the Minister is aware, the blocking of the Danube is now putting tremendous strain on already relatively fragile countries, such as Albania and Bulgaria, with the after effects of refugees on Macedonia and Albania.

Can the noble Baroness say anything about NATO's discussions about the compensation which was promised to these relatively fragile democracies upon which they now profoundly depend?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, these matters have to be discussed in a number of different fora, not least of which is the Stability Pact Summit which, as the noble Baroness may know, is due to take place in Sarajevo on 30th July. It will not only discuss the issues on compensation but also the rebuilding of that part of the world.

The noble Baroness raises an important issue about the Danube because, as she knows, there is no question of giving aid directly to Serbia while Mr Milosevic is in power. The situation in the Danube affects many other Balkan countries and I assure the noble Baroness that we are well seized of the difficulty. A good deal of thought is going into how the circle can be squared and one of the major opportunities to debate that in detail will be on 30th July.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, following the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia, the Americans have offered compensation to the Chinese. What representations have the Government and our NATO partners received from the Russian Government about compensation to civilians in Serbia, given that last month Mr Chernomyrdin said: Sooner or later, NATO will be expected by the world community to pay Yugoslavia for damages to compensate the bereaved families of innocent victims."?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the issues relating to Russia are based on an interpretation of international law with which Her Majesty's Government do not agree. I refer the noble Lord to my original Answer that, as we do not believe that our bombing was unlawful, the issue of compensation does not arise.

As regards the Chinese Embassy, it is common for ex gratia payments, without any admission of liability, to be made when one state damages the diplomatic premises of another.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the Minister comment not only on the legality of our action but on whether it was in accordance with the principles of the just war, one of which is proportionality; that is, the use of proportionate force to achieve the end in view? Is the Minister as confident about that as she is about the legality of our actions?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I am confident about the issue of proportionality. I am sure that anyone who sat through the debates in your Lordships' House during the bombings knows the care with which my noble friend Lord Gilbert was able to describe the targeting processes and the detail into which Members of the Front Bench, speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, went in explaining how bombing raids were undertaken. Furthermore, when things went wrong, we were unprecedented in the openness with which we dealt with that. We have nothing to hide in our conduct of the campaign. Our Armed Forces did extraordinarily well, and the three-quarters of a million returning Kosovar-Albanians know the truth of what I am saying.