HL Deb 24 March 1999 vol 598 cc1387-97

9.10 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which is in the process of being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows: Earlier this evening four British aircraft, together with missiles from the submarine HMS "Splendid", attacked targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as part of a co-ordinated NATO airstrike. Two other aircraft flew supporting missions. Honourable Members may have heard the Prime Minister's remarks from Berlin earlier this evening. He said, 'I want to pay tribute, at the outset, to our forces. We owe a huge debt to them for their courage, and their professionalism. Tonight, there are families in Britain who will be feeling a real sense of anxiety. They can feel too a real sense of pride at the contribution their loved ones make to peace and stability in Europe'. The House will wish to join me in echoing these sentiments. Attacks were mounted by seven United States Air Force B52 bombers from Fairford in Gloucestershire. The strike in which they participated was a very significant one, involving both air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles and manned aircraft from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Spain. A number of other allied air forces flew supporting missions. The targets being attacked in this first phase were mainly elements of the Yugoslavian air defence system but also included a number of Serbian military facilities related to the repression in Kosovo. The NATO military action, which has the full support of all 19 member states, is intended to support the political aims of the international community. It is justified as an exceptional measure to prevent an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe. It is, and will continue to be, directed towards disrupting the violent attacks being committed by the Yugoslav army and Serbian special police force and weakening their ability to continue their repressive strategy. Two United Nations Security Council resolutions, 1199 and 1203, underpin our actions. Both demanded that Serbs cease all actions against the civilian population and withdraw the security units used for civilian repression. Milosevic has been in breach of every single part of these resolutions. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, a quarter of a million Kosovars, more than 10 per cent. of the population, are now homeless as a result of repression by Serb forces; 65, 000 people have been forced from their homes in the last month, and no fewer than 25, 000 in these days since peace talks broke down. Families are being uprooted and driven from their homes. There are disturbing reports of the destruction of whole villages. Over the past few days we have all seen harrowing and unforgettable images on the television and in newspapers. The scenes are more reminiscent of the Middle Ages than of Europe on the eve of the 21st century. I would remind the House that the decision to initiate air strikes was taken last night only after it became clear that the final diplomatic effort in Belgrade had not met with success and that all efforts to achieve a negotiated, political solution to the Kosovo crisis had failed. Over the past year the international community, with Britain at the forefront, has made intensive efforts to seek a peaceful resolution. Milosevic has either rejected these approaches or entered into undertakings on which he has subsequently reneged; notably, his blatant failure to observe the limits on army and special police numbers in Kosovo. Military force is now the only option. NATO's position is clear, and was set out in its statement of 30th January. We seek to bring an end to the violence in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and support the completion of negotiations on an interim political settlement. Three demands were made at the time, all of which Mr. Milosevic has so far rejected. He has not ended his use of excessive and disproportionate force in Kosovo. He has broken the undertaking he gave last October to reduce Serb forces in Kosovo to pre-February 1998 levels; and he has so far refused to accept the interim political settlement which was negotiated at the peace talks in France earlier this year.

"Tonight, NATO—19 nations of which 13 flew their aircraft tonight—has backed its words with action. It has hit hard and it will continue to hit hard until its military objectives are achieved.

"What happens next is up to Mr. Milosevic. It remains open to him to show at any time that he is ready to meet the demands of the international community. The demands are reasonable: they are an autonomous Kosovo within Serbia and an international military force to underpin the settlement. We hope that the Yugoslavian people will understand that this is the only practical basis of moving forward without further bloodshed.

"I take this opportunity tonight to address a warning to those in the Yugoslav army and other forces who may be in receipt of orders to repress the Albanians in Kosovo. Do not assume that you can carry out such activity with impunity. You have a personal responsibility not to exceed the bounds of international law. You run the risk of being prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague if you do so.

"I also address the Kosovar Albanians. You have had the courage to commit yourselves to the path of peace. It is imperative that you remain committed to that approach and refrain from provocative actions in the days to come.

"Neither NATO nor the United Kingdom is waging war against the people of Yugoslavia. We will make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. Our objective is to reduce the human suffering and violence against the civilian population of Kosovo. We seek to bring to an end the human tragedy now unfolding.

"We know the risks of action, and we salute the bravery of our servicemen and women who are undertaking these operations on our behalf. To the families of the brave men and women of our Armed Forces involved in this action—and, indeed to the British people as a whole—I would say this. We should remind ourselves that history has proved time and time again that standing up to aggression is the only way to stop brutal leaders like President Milosevic.

"As the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, if Kosovo was left to the mercy of Serbian repression, there is not merely a risk but the probability of re-igniting unrest in Albania, of a destabilised Macedonia, of almost certain knock-on effects in Bosnia, and of further tension between Greece and Turkey. Strategic interests for the whole of Europe are at stake. We, as fellow Europeans, cannot contemplate, on our own doorstep, a disintegration into chaos and disorder.

"This is a grave moment. Those who have doubted NATO's resolve have been shown to be wrong. We are prepared to see this through.

"We do not expect that air attacks will lead to an instant end to the brutality in Kosovo—Yugoslavia has a substantial military machine and is under the control of a ruthless man. But our attacks will make it clear to President Milosevic and his security forces that if they continue to use excessive force in Kosovo they will pay a very high price indeed. "

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I sincerely thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister in another place.

This is an extremely gloomy moment. I feel, as I am sure many other Members of this House feel, that we could well be in the situation of 28th June 1914 when the Austrian Crown Prince was murdered in Sarajevo. There is no doubt that the Balkans have been the centre of so much of the trouble that we have faced in Europe over the past 100 years. Let us hope sincerely that the next six weeks will be less sad, less desperate than were the six weeks over the month of July 1914.

As I understand it, we are to have a debate tomorrow on the situation. I have no doubt that by then it will be a little clearer than it is tonight. Your Lordships will be most grateful to have been told all that the noble Lord has been able to tell us, repeating from his right honourable friend. But hour by hour the situation will develop and we shall know more tomorrow. His right honourable friend the Prime Minister quite rightly congratulated the British and other NATO forces on their action, their bravery and their devotion to service in the Balkans. From these Benches we totally support everything that he said.

However, we must express our concern that the Prime Minister seems to be relying on air warfare only. I do not believe that I am overstating it when I say that there seems to be a slightly gung-ho atmosphere in what the Deputy Prime Minister said. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to reassure the House that all the British aircraft, which were Harriers operating out of Gioia del Colle in Italy, returned safely. I understand that that is not true for the American aircraft. I am not certain of that; that information is being given to me as I speak. But I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a bit more about that.

The Serbians have an airforce. Our forces on the ground in Macedonia are beyond the range of our cover from Italy and they must be in severe danger of attack from Serbian forces. I hope that the NATO forces involved in this campaign will not underestimate the strength and determination of the Serbian armies. This is not an Iraq. This is a strong, determined and fighting people. If we are to face up to them, it must be done with the utmost resolution. Inevitably, we will find that it cannot be done by air power alone; that we shall have to use forces on the ground.

It is difficult to know what the Government could have done. But I hope that all those concerned will realise that within Serbia there is a great deal of support for President Milosevic and that we are facing grave difficulties. Let us pray for a quick determination and that the Serbians cannot face up to the united, moral forces of the rest of the world. Let us hope that they and the Kosovars can come into a position in which they can at least see peace and—it is to be hoped—a settled life on their own.

9.25 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. We on these Benches entirely agree with the action that the Government have taken. We believe that NATO had no option other than to use military force against the Serbians in view of the fact that Milosevic was continuing and even intensifying the acts of oppression against the people of Kosovo, causing massive loss of life and huge displacement of civilians from their homes. Indeed, as the noble Lord said, the number already amounts to a quarter of a million. People have been bombed and shelled out of their houses. They are living on the hillsides with nothing but a few pots and pans, hardly anything to eat and nothing to cover them in this very cold weather.

We entirely agree that the latter was a flagrant violation of Security Council Resolutions 1199 and 1203 and that action had to be taken to enforce the will of the Security Council, even though we recognise that tomorrow may be an awkward day for us in the council with the objections that are bound to be raised by the Russians, and possibly the Chinese, to the action that we have taken.

We are told that the objective is to reduce the Serbian capacity to kill civilians and to destroy their property but that we are also hoping to get Milosevic to adhere to the promises which he made last October. Can the Minister say what will happen tomorrow morning if we find that Serbian tanks and artillery are still bombarding the villages of Kosovo and, indeed, if the same thing happens the day after? If the bombardment continues for several days and after thousands of tonnes of explosives have been dropped on military targets we find that Serbian capacity has only been degraded by, say, 30 per cent. or 40 per cent. and their political will has not been broken, what do we do then? Is it not essential to have plans ready to deal with a situation in which there is no prospect of getting Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet Agreement? Would it not be right to say publicly that, if there is no deal, we shall work towards the establishment of an international protectorate over the territory of Kosovo and the forfeiture of Yugoslav territory?

The warning that was given to the Yugoslav forces that if they continue military action against civilians in Kosovo they risk prosecution before the international criminal tribunal on the former Yugoslavia is obviously perfectly correct in international law. However, is it not also correct to say that Milosevic himself risks prosecution? Did not Louise Arbour say at one point in an interview that no one was exempt from the proceedings of the international tribunal, including a head of state? Could that message be given clearly to Mr. Milosevic along with the message that has been given to the armed forces of Yugoslavia?

Finally, we on these Benches wholeheartedly endorse the tribute which was paid by the Deputy Prime Minister to our Armed Forces. We join in the congratulations expressed to them on their heroic action and their professionalism in this hazardous operation. We wish them every success in the essential task of destroying the Serbian forces and deterring those who remain from the vicious oppression of the people of Kosovo.

9.28 p.m.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am very much obliged to both the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for the tributes that they have also paid to the courage and skill of our men and women in uniform who are engaged in these activities in the former Republic of Yugoslavia.

The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said that he thought the Prime Minister was relying on air warfare only. I want to make it absolutely clear that the military decisions that are being taken are not exclusively the property of Her Majesty's Government; indeed, they are NATO decisions. Therefore, on reflection, the noble Lord may realise that it is not just a single decision by the British Prime Minister in this respect. I regret that he thinks there is a gung ho atmosphere. I am sure that if he were at the Ministry of Defence, as I was today, he would appreciate that there is far from being a gung ho atmosphere. There is a mood of apprehension, of seriousness, of determination and of resignation that we are forced to do what we are doing. There is anxiety with respect to our air crews.

I regret to say that I am unable to confirm whether all the British aircraft have yet returned safely. If I was speaking an hour or so later I might have that information, but as of this moment I do not have it. I checked the situation just before I entered your Lordships' Chamber. Your Lordships should not infer from that that anything has gone wrong; it is simply that I do not have the information at my disposal one way or the other.

The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, asked whether the forces in Macedonia were in danger of attack from the Serbian air force. Most of the Serbian air force does not have the most modern equipment and the amount of flying it does is extremely limited. I was told that it averaged about 25 hours a year. That will hardly keep the pilots in a condition to perform serious military operations. I assure the noble Lord that should NATO forces be attacked by the Serbian air force while in Macedonia, the response will be immediate and ferocious. I quite agree with him that we are not dealing with another Iraq when we are engaged in conflict with the forces of Serbia. However, I point out to him that it is a conscript army that Mr. Milosevic has at his disposal and it remains to be seen how its morale will or will not hold up under the kind of bombardment it may anticipate in the next few days. I say it may anticipate that but I believe that probably one of the reasons we have reached this situation is that Mr. Milosevic is quite unaware of the depth of air power that he faces and the vigour with which his military personnel and assets will be attacked.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for recognising that NATO had absolutely no option in these circumstances. It is not only a question of the huge loss of life. Everyone in your Lordships' House will have seen the most distressing pictures of refugees seeing their homes burning when they have committed no crime whatever except that they lived where that was inconvenient to Mr. Milosevic. I remind your Lordships that he is responsible for nearly all the trouble that has occurred in that unhappy country in the past few years. In addition to the figures I mentioned a few moments ago, we now find ourselves with about 1 million refugees from Yugoslavia in the EU. The blame for most of that, but not all of it, can be laid, in my view, at the door of Mr. Milosevic.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked me what would happen in the Security Council tomorrow. We had better wait to see what happens. There will, of course, be intense diplomatic discussions with our Russian friends. We hope to persuade them and the other Permanent Members of the Security Council who are not involved in these operations of the inevitability of what we had to do in order to prevent a greater human catastrophe.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked me what will happen if Serbian tanks are still bombarding on the second day and the third day. The answer is that they will continue to receive the kind of treatment that we have just started to mete out to them. As the Prime Minister made clear, we are absolutely resolute that we shall continue until the job is done. Our military objectives are perfectly clear. They are twofold. The first one is to frustrate the present operations of the Yugoslav army and special police forces and, secondly, to curb the ability of Mr. Milosevic in the future to carry out that kind of operation. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, rightly remarked, it is perfectly true that President Milosevic, like every member of his armed forces, is liable in the fullness of time to face charges at the international tribunal.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I believe that the House would very much welcome it if, before the end of the debate in which we are involved, he had any further information with regard to the return of British and NATO aircraft, he could pass a message to his noble friend so that he could give that information to the House.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am happy to accede to the noble Lord's request.

9.34 p.m.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating what must be a difficult Statement. Yesterday I had the opportunity when we had a Statement on Kosovo to express both my unhappiness at our being forced to resort to the military option but also my understanding and support for the Government in the action that they have taken. Since then, 24 hours later, two events have occurred and it is on them that I wish to ask my noble friend questions. One favourable event is, of course, that we have got the 19 NATO countries to agree to the policy that is being pursued. I would like to think that that is also the resolve of all the members of the European Union meeting in Berlin at the present time.

Secondly, and negatively, I had thought when we heard the Statement yesterday that Primakov was en route for Washington, if he had not already arrived. Not only did he not arrive, as we know, but he was recalled. Since then we have had President Yeltsin's very urgent public plea on Russian television. I ask and urge my noble friend not to abandon the efforts, which I am sure he thinks are well worth while, of trying to explain this action to the Russians and engage them in and associate them with it. Historically they are the protectors of Serbia and they have a very strong connection there and much influence. It would be tragic if we did not explore every possible way of getting at least Russian acceptance, if not approval, of what we have done.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend, particularly for his earlier remarks of support. As far as concerns the members of the EU who are not members of NATO, all I can say is that I have not heard of any dissenting voices from Berlin. Frankly, knowing the countries which fall into that category, I would be very surprised indeed were we to hear any such remarks. I certainly associate myself with my noble friend's views on the need for us to continue to try to engage the Russians in this matter.

The tragedy is that the Serbs are a very great people. What is unfortunate is that they are under the sway of such a brutal individual. Those of us who are old enough to remember the Second World War know perfectly well how bravely the Serbs fought on our side during that conflict. We fully understand the emotional commitment that the Russian people have to the Serbian people. These are very difficult times for the Russian leadership and the Russian people. I assure my noble friend that Her Majesty's Government are fully seized of the importance of that and of his remarks.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sure the whole House will agree that when British troops go into combat they deserve and should expect the support of both Houses of Parliament. However, I wonder whether the Minister can give me any instance in recent years in which bombardment, however heavy, has led to the subjugation of a proud people. We have just finished discussing the pride of the Serbian people. If the noble Lord agrees with me that there is all kinds of evidence to suggest that very often bombing has the opposite effect, would he therefore agree also that it is quite likely now that we will be forced to follow bombardment with an invasion, at least of Kosovo? If that is so, does he further agree that, assuming its success, such an invasion would have to prepare for an almost permanent presence of troops occupying Kosovo, just as we have experienced in Cyprus and I suspect we shall continue to experience in Bosnia? Does the noble Lord think that we have enough troops to envisage that commitment, particularly if we are to see an unfortunate increase in tension in Northern Ireland?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Viscount for his remarks about the valour of our forces engaged in these operations. He asked whether I could give an example of when—and I noted his words with care—bombardment had ever led to the subjugation of a foe. Subjugation is not what this operation is about. I wish to make that absolutely clear. I repeat, this operation is about frustrating what the Serbian army and special police forces are currently engaged in and curbing President Milosevic's capacity for continuing that kind of operation in the future. It is in no way about the subjugation of the Serbian people.

The noble Viscount is right: bombing often has an opposite effect from that which was intended. I believe, however, that he may have in mind the bombing of towns and cities and of civilian populations. We are choosing only military targets. The increase in the accuracy of our precision weapons, and I speak for the alliance as a whole, has been remarkable, even since the Gulf War of 1991.

We have no intention of invading Kosovo. We have no intention of fighting our way in there. Had that been our intention we should have needed many more forces on the ground. I refer not only to the United Kingdom but to the alliance as a whole. The noble Viscount is quite right. That is no part of our policy.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I, too, wish to associate myself with those who have congratulated the Government on their resolve, and I congratulate them on the statesmanlike and measured language in which they have expressed that resolve. It is difficult to think of a period in recent history when our government, together with others, have striven more consistently and hard to try to find a peaceful solution to a dreadful problem. I, like others, recognise that there was now no alternative.

It seems to me that we have to be positive in our reaction and say that it is not just that there was no other option, but that we have now demonstrated that NATO is serious about the principles and values on which that alliance is based and is not going to let those principles and values become eroded and lost in the morass of endless wordgames.

I am sure we all agree that tonight our thoughts and prayers are with all those who are responsible for the action, all those who are engaged in the action, and all those inevitable victims, on whatever side, who are victims as a result of the intransigence and ruthlessness of Milosevic.

I wish to ask my noble friend two questions. First, does he agree that all recent experience demonstrates that wherever military action is taken there must be absolute clarity about the political objectives within which that military action is being pursued? Can we be assured, therefore, that the Government, together with their allies, will take every opportunity to spell out how they see the way forward in terms of the developing situation towards what I presume and hope is still the objective; namely, a peaceful and sustainable solution, not only for Serbia but also for Kosovo?

My second question is this. We are one of five Permanent Members of the Security Council. We therefore have a special responsibility for the credibility and integrity of the United Nations in its responsibilities for collective security. My noble friend assured us that we are at pains to explain that the action flows from the resolutions already endorsed by the Security Council. Can my noble friend assure us that we will continue to emphasise the legitimacy of the action within the context of the United Nations Security Council and not from some other source? The danger is that if we do not do that, some other member of the United Nations at some future date will take a subjective interpretation of what is necessary and what is not necessary on humanitarian grounds and take action of which we might not approve.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments, particularly his endorsement of the fact that Her Majesty's Government have tried hard over many months to find a peaceful solution to this terrible situation.

I am glad also of his recognition that the actions we take today and may have to continue to take for some time yet demonstrate the seriousness with which NATO takes its principles. As he rightly said, our thoughts are with the victims and also with our pilots and other air crew and the men in Her Majesty's submarine. It is lonely being in the cockpit of a military jet aircraft in the dark, with missiles and other anti-aircraft ordnance coming at them. These young men must be frightened and brave at the same time and we owe them a great deal.

My noble friend said that Her Majesty's Government had to be absolutely clear about their objectives. I totally agree. I hope that I have spoken with as much clarity as I can. Our military objectives—and I repeat them so that there is no possibility of a misunderstanding—are to obstruct and disrupt the activities that the Serbian military forces and special police forces are currently engaged in in Kosovo and to curb President Milosevic's capability of continuing to prosecute such a campaign of atrocities in the future.

My noble friend asked about legitimacy. We are perfectly confident that we have a good legal basis for our action. I quoted the relevant Security Council resolutions. This is the view not only of Her Majesty's Government but one that is shared by all the other 18 members of NATO. The justification rests upon the accepted principle that force may be used in extreme circumstances to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. I am afraid that we have already seen a humanitarian catastrophe and wish to ensure that it does not continue.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I wish to make a rather broader point. I discussed it with the Minister's noble friend, the Leader of the House, after the Statement yesterday and perhaps it might have been better made yesterday than today.

The point I wish to make is about the phase of the Balkan problem which started in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I feel that we should not forget the psychological warfare aspect of the conflict. I think we would all agree, looking back to the Bosnian conflict, that Radovan Karadzic is a pretty evil person. We should not forget his training as a psychiatrist which he put to good effect in inciting and inflaming the Serbs in Bosnia. He took over the baton of leading the misnamed Serbian Democratic Party from another psychiatrist, Raskovic, who had written a book which was instrumental in inflaming the passions of the Serb people there. The point I wish to make is that there is evidence—certainly allegations—that at one time Mr. Milosevic was a patient of Radovan Karadic.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I have a difficulty. I am trying to be reasonable. The noble Lord must make a brief point or question in order to enable other Lords to speak.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I believe that I am being more brief than some other noble Lords who have spoken. The point I am making—

Earl Attlee

My Lords, the noble Lord is making a speech. He is not asking a question of the Minister.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I am making a point in a far shorter time than other noble Lords made their points. My point is that in President Milosevic we may be dealing with someone who has had his Serbian nationalism artificially inflamed. I am simply asking Her Majesty's Government to bear in mind this aspect of the conflict and the fact that if our troops encounter Serbian militia or troops they may find that the Serbian forces have had their ferocity enhanced, as in Bosnia, by being given mind-altering drugs. There is a lot of evidence for that. I ask the Government to bear that in mind.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I have no difficulty in agreeing with the noble Lord that it is not only Slobadan Milosevic who has incited Serb nationalism. He clearly bears by far the greatest proportion of blame. I shall let the matter rest at that.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, I understand that the independent media has been closed down in Belgrade. What will NATO be able to do to impact on public opinion in order to ensure that it receives accurate information?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very good point. These days, it is virtually impossible in Europe to prevent people getting accurate information. They can listen to the BBC, ITN or CNN. They can listen to radio from outside their borders. Mr. Milosevic has engaged on an impossible task if he believes that he can prevent his citizens from finding out what is going on and why.