HL Deb 13 March 2003 vol 645 cc1481-4

3.22 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether a simple majority of the Security Council of the United Nations in favour of the draft resolution submitted by Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States would be sufficient justification for the United Kingdom to invade Iraq.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I told the House and as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in another place on 25th November, following the adoption of Resolution 1441, the preference of the Government, in the event of a further material breach by Iraq, is for a second Security Council resolution. Resolution 1441 warns Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violation of its obligations.

As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in November, we must reserve our position, in the event that the council does not live up to its responsibilities under the resolution. We have repeatedly said that we will always act in accordance with international law.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Will she confirm that Her Majesty's Government take the view that, if the resolution is not, for some reason, passed by the Security Council, that will not debar the Government from military action against Iraq for lack of proper legal authority? Can the noble Baroness reconcile that view with that of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who said: If the US and others go outside the Security Council and take unilateral action, they would not be in conformity with the charter"?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are working very hard to secure a second Security Council resolution. I will not say anything that would prejudice the chances of a successful outcome for those negotiations. I said what I had to say about reserving our position in my Answer.

The noble Lord asked about the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Kofi Annan has been saying—we have all been saying—that it is important for the United Nations to come together. That is exactly what we have been trying to ensure. It is why we have tried to provide a basis—a compromise—even at this late stage, on which we can resolve the matter properly. Trying to secure agreement in the United Nations is more complicated when one member of the P5 says that it will veto a resolution in any circumstances.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will accept that many of us did not hear the Secretary-General saying what he said. Yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke of bringing the international community as a whole together on the issue. There are questions of legality with regard to the UN Charter and to voting procedures, which require nine votes. There is also the broader question of legitimacy and acceptance by the international community that action is justified. Does the Minister accept that, by that standard, the British and American Governments have not yet succeeded in persuading the international community in the way that the Prime Minister suggested yesterday?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I concede that there is a strongly argued position to be held on both sides of the question. It would be extraordinary to succeed in persuading the whole international community to adopt one position, as things stand and given the events of the past few days.

I remind the noble Lord that the international community came together effectively around UNSCR 1441. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are negotiating with every ounce of their strength to ensure that that international consensus survives.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the case for military action against Iraq does not begin or rest with the draft resolution referred to in the Question or with Resolution 1441? It rests with Resolution 678 of 1990 and all the subsequent Chapter VII resolutions about Iraq.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree very strongly with my noble friend. It is not just a question of Resolution 678, the resolution containing the decision to take military action against Iraq. There is also Resolution 687, which led to the suspension of that military action.

We sometimes refer to what we are discussing as the "second resolution". I remind your Lordships that it is the 18th resolution on the issue. As my noble friend pointed out, the resolutions were made under the mandatory chapter, Chapter VII.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree, further to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, that, as members of the United Nations have voted no fewer than 17 times to compel Saddam Hussein to disarm and to use all measures to do so, it would be reasonable to conclude that any further pressure, including force, had UN approval and was internationally legal? They are complex matters, on which we all, understandably, seek reassurance.

We appreciate that legal advice from the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General is confidential, as is right and proper. However, would it not be helpful, in the debate to be introduced by the Liberal Democrats on Monday, to have his presence and guidance? If he cannot help us on this difficult issue, he could help us with the broader issues affecting the Armed Forces in a conflict, now that we operate under the International Criminal Court system, which raises new and complex problems.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in answer to the first part of the noble Lord's question, I shall repeat what the Prime Minister said yesterday in another place: As the Foreign Secretary has pointed out, resolution 1441 gives the legal basis for this. The reason we have been seeking a second resolution is … that it is highly desirable to demonstrate the unified will of the international community".—[Official Report, Commons, 12/3/03; col. 284.] That is the Prime Minister's view. It is good enough for me and, I hope, for the noble Lord.

I thank the noble Lord for the way in which he put his question about the advice of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. I remind him, however, that, by a long-standing convention that has been observed by successive governments, the fact and substance of Law Officers' advice are not disclosed outside the Government. That convention is reflected in paragraph 24 of the ministerial code. I believe that the noble Lord will also find it reflected on page 389 of Erskine May.

Law Officers' advice is given to the Government in confidence. If the department to which the advice is given wishes to disclose the advice, it may do so with the consent of the Law Officers. In practice, that is rarely done.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords—

Lord Sheldon

My Lords—

Lord Grocott

My Lords, we shall hear from my noble friend Lord Sheldon.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in Stalinist times in the post-war years the Foreign Minister at the time drew the distinction between a "No" vote and a veto? When he voted "No", the Security Council assumed it was a veto. He said, "No, it was not". That is the precedent for our times, which has not been changed. We must not assume that any "No" votes will be a veto in the event of such votes being cast.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an interesting point—which I am sure has already registered with my right honourable friends in another place. I shall ensure that it is conveyed to them. What has been so difficult about the position articulated from the other side of the Channel this week is the use of the words, "in any circumstances whatsoever". That has been very difficult. However, I shall certainly convey the point raised by my noble friend Lord Sheldon and I thank him for it.