HL Deb 15 March 2001 vol 623 cc986-8

3.21 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will refrain from taking part in further aerial bombardment of Iraq unless authorised by the United Nations.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, our position is unchanged. The no-fly zones were established in 1991 for the north and in 1992 for the south in support of UN SCR 688. They are justified under international law in response to a situation of overwhelming humanitarian necessity. Coalition pilots take action only in self-defence. If Iraq stopped trying to kill our pilots, there would be no further confrontation.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that we all share her hopes that confrontation of this sort will cease to be general? Unfortunately, however, it is a fact that a large number of civilians have been killed by aerial bombardment since 1945. I am glad to hear from my noble friend, if I understand her correctly, that this country will not be taking any further part in such proceedings.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I really must disabuse my noble friend of his conclusion. We know that some of the claims made by Iraq in relation to civilian casualties are grossly exaggerated. It was recently claimed that there had been 30 civilian casualties when we were not dropping any ordnance at all; on some of those occasions coalition planes were not even flying.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, from these Benches we have consistently supported the Government on the Iraqi sanctions policy and the no-fly zones. However, does the Minister consider that the time may have come for a reconsideration at least of the sanctions policy, in view of the fact that we are now seeing the authority of the United Nations being steadily undermined and there is growing support among moderate Arab leaders for Saddam Hussein, which is deeply regrettable? Is there any prospect of an inspection regime being re-mounted, given that since the beginning of last year there has been no inspection and there are troubling indications that Iraq may again be building up weapons of mass destruction?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right when she stresses the importance of our pursuing the issue of weapons of mass destruction. The incoming United States administration is looking at the position in a number of respects. What we are all aiming to do is to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are kept as far away as possible from the Iraqi regime. That is what our major effort has to be aimed at. The noble Baroness is right when she talks about sanctions: at the same time as trying to tighten the control in relation to weapons of mass destruction, we constantly look for ways to lighten the burden of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis with whom we have no quarrel whatever.

When the regime in Iraq is able to import 38,000 bottles of whisky and 300 million cigarettes every month, it makes one wonder just how credible the claims are about sanctions being the problem rather than the regime.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, does my noble friend have any reliable information about civilian casualties in Iraq? There must have been some, because it is not possible to have a bombing campaign without inflicting some civilian casualties. Will she also tell the House why our EU partners seem unwilling to continue to support the action?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have no definitive figures to give to my noble friend. However, if I may, I shall send her a list of occasions when there have been claims about civilian casualties when we know those claims to have been palpably untrue. Of course, any military action is never without risk, and we are always deeply sorry about any civilian casualties. But I must stress, as I have done on a number of occasions in this House, that the bombing that takes place is the result of trying to defend our own pilots.

So far as concerns the EU, I hope that my noble friend will be pleased to know that the policy is discussed both bilaterally and within the framework of the EU. Since we had the opportunity of explaining why we undertook the bombing last month—that is, because we had come under attack more times in January than we had in the whole of last year—I think the degree of understanding has been very much greater.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while the Iraqi regime is piling up huge oil revenues and continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, that same regime is cutting the daily food ration for the people of Iraq and cutting medical supplies all the time? Far from easing the pressures on Saddam Hussein and this dreadful regime, do we not need to devise new and better targeted pressures to counter his evil efforts, and to work closely with the American authorities who are developing new ideas in this field? Are we so working?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I indicated to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, we are aware that the new administration is not so much reviewing but assessing the position, as any incoming administration is bound to do. Of course we are in close touch with our closest allies on this issue, as the noble Lord would expect us to be. However, we must look carefully at making sure that any changes are targeted at the weapons of mass destruction in the way he indicated. Perhaps I may remind those who say that sanctions are the problem that the sanctions are the same throughout Iraq, but in those parts of Iraq which are not controlled by Baghdad—I am thinking particularly of the Kurds in the north of Iraq—for example, school rolls are rising, as opposed to in the rest of the country where they are falling; health indicators are improving; and infant mortality rates are lower than before sanctions were imposed. I think those examples indicate that it is not the sanctions that are the problem; it is the hideous regime.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords—

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will my noble friend place a copy of the information in the Library?

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the point is often made that we do not allow enough time for the fourth Question. I think it would be appropriate if we moved on now.