HL Deb 02 February 2000 vol 609 cc232-4

2.50 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to take a preliminary objection to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in the proceedings brought against the United Kingdom by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Government are confident of the strength of their case should the Yugoslav application ever reach the Merits stage. We regard this case as a shameless and opportunistic abuse of the Court, whose jurisdiction was accepted by Belgrade only three days before launching its application. The UK has substantial legal arguments for resisting the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's application at the preliminary stage.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. I accept that there is a view among some international lawyers that the use of force is justified to avert humanitarian catastrophes, despite the clear language of Article 2 of the charter. Does the noble Baroness agree that there is also a great deal of authority the other way? Therefore, since the point is obviously one of major importance for the future of the United Nations, is it not better to let the International Court of Justice decide the point in issue—that is what it is there for—to affirm the existence of the so-called humanitarian exception, perhaps with the assistance of the Attorney-General and, above all, define the limits of the exception rather than take what I continue to regard as a thoroughly technical objection to the jurisdiction of the Court, which can only delay a decision on the merits?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, first, I understand the import of what the noble and learned Lord says in relation to this issue. However, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's case is a propaganda measure. It accepted the Court's jurisdiction only three days before it launched its application and seeks to deflect the blame by suggesting that NATO has responsibility for what happened in Kosovo. Milosevic is clearly responsible and has been indicted. We are confident that we have a strong legal case and will fight the Yugoslav case on its merits if we have to. We have a strong and substantial argument on jurisdiction and admissibility. If we have to send a clear message it must be that people like Milosevic cannot seek to take adventitious advantage of the procedure, which is precisely what he seeks to do in this case. We cannot let him get away with it.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, is it not the case that when Yugoslavia lodged its case on 29th April of last year and Mr John Morris appeared before the court he and his team argued purely on the grounds of a technicality, thus depriving public opinion in this country, and the world, of a definitive ruling on whether NATO's action was or was not within international law? If the Government have a good case, why do they not allow it to be judged by the court?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord is completely wrong in relation to this matter. The issue before the Court was a preliminary matter. As one knows, when dealing with a preliminary matter one should stick to the point. We did so and answered the point, and the Court found in our favour.

Lord Richard

My Lords, will my noble friend resist the blandishments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who appear to argue that this is essentially a legal and not a political matter? Can she confirm that the Government regard the setting of international limits on the doctrine of overwhelming humanitarian necessity to justify an intervention essentially as a political matter, which will have to be discussed in great detail among the various countries which are the prime movers in the United Nations? Can my noble friend tell the House whether such discussions are under way; if not, when does she hope that they will begin?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the international discussions are incredibly important, and Britain is doing all that she can to raise these issues. Discussion is already taking place with our international partners and will continue to be pursued later in the spring.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, the Minister will recall her eloquent defence of NATO in last night's debate. As to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, can she tell the House something about the need to pursue war criminals in a situation where, in the absence of such steps and evidence, there is too great a tendency for people in Kosovo to take the law into their own hands?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I certainly confirm what the noble Baroness says. It is important that these matters are taken seriously. We have played our part in identifying those who have committed crimes, and we have been, and will continue to be, supportive in pursuing those matters. This is a matter that the Government take very seriously. As always, there is much good sense in what the noble Baroness says.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in the light of some of the Minister's responses, can she say whether Her Majesty's Government now regard Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, especially that part which deals with non-interference in the affairs of other states, to be non-operative?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, those provisions are operative. Those in this Chamber and elsewhere who have to grapple with issues that arise from humanitarian disasters are aware that this is a matter on which we are moving forward internationally. This is an important issue—some would say of equal importance to the other elements of the Charter.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, does the Minister concede that in its hearings on the provisional measures the ICJ stated that, under the present circumstances … [this] raises very serious issues of international law"? Furthermore, in light of the Foreign Secretary's belief that it is right that the action taken in Kosovo should, become the basis for an approach to future conflict", does the noble Baroness agree that it is critical that the rules of international law on such military intervention should be spelt out more clearly than they have been so far?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is important that that should happen. However, the case brought by Slobodan Milosevic is not the only way in which that issue can be addressed. The difficulty is that he has been able to do something which is quite wrong. The international community is looking at the issue and seeks to define the basis on which it can act together in future, and that must be the most efficacious way to proceed.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick

My Lords, if the Government are so confident about the advice that they have received from the Attorney-General and his predecessor, is it possible for that to be published so that we can all benefit from it?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will be aware from his long experience in dealing with these matters that neither the advice nor the substance of the case can at this stage be published. Obviously, once the case has been heard and dealt with matters may change.