HL Deb 12 February 2004 vol 656 cc1205-8


Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to strengthen the campaign against global terrorism.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government identified international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the most serious threats to our security. To combat international terrorism, the Government have argued forcefully for action to be taken to block terrorists' funds. They have considerably strengthened our intelligence assessment capability, increased significantly the resources of the law enforcement agencies dealing with terrorism and, where necessary, taken military action. We also ensure that the issue is at the top of our agenda internationally through diplomatic and political channels.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that statement. Whatever may be the motivation of the people responsible for the recent terrible bombings in Iraq, is not the main cause of global terrorism the despair and anger of the Arab people at the steadily worsening situation in the Palestinian territories? Since the noble Baroness has recently been there, does she agree with me that the time has come, in connection with that dispute, for action, rather than words, using the political and economic levers available to the quartet powers? Would it not be a mistake to wait for action until the American election is over in nine months' time because by then, if things go on as they are, the situation will be even worse?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that was an extremely long question. I acknowledge that the bombing outrages in Iraq in the past few days have been deplorable. Our sympathy goes to those who have suffered through loss of life or injury. However, I remind the noble Lord that his Question is focused on global terrorism. For example, only last weekend, we saw a terrible bombing outrage in Moscow. The causes of global terrorism are enormously diverse.

The noble Lord asked us to reflect on how much of such terrorism can be related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Of course, there is despair and anger; there is despair and anger on both sides about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. I agree with the noble Lord that we cannot simply wait and see what happens next. That is why Her Majesty's Government have been so actively engaged. As the noble Lord indicated, I have been to Israel and Palestine recently. I have had discussions with people from throughout the Palestinian hierarchy about what must be done with regard to security. We are also having discussions with the Israeli Administration about their responsibility to take forward phase one of the road map.

Lord Judd

My Lords, it was reassuring to hear my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General argue at Chatham House yesterday that one of the most important elements in the stand against terrorism was the protection of our system of the rule of law and all that it involved. If that is the position of the Government—I am sure that it is—will my noble friend agree that it is therefore essential to regard any derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights as an unfortunate step to have felt compelled to take? Such moves should last for as short a period as possible, and the position must be kept under acute and active review.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree. It is enormously important that civil liberties and all that we value about our way of life—not only in this country but in the other great democracies—under the rule of law should be safeguarded as far as possible. However, I also put to the noble Lord a point that I am sure was raised at Chatham House yesterday: it is the first duty of governments to make sure that their people have security. We must all wrestle with that extraordinarily difficult balance.

If I may say so to the noble Lord, we must consider both sides of the question. There are real issues relating to the security of people not only in this country but elsewhere for which we have responsibility. We must address those responsibilities, as well as safeguarding civil liberties.

Lord Boyce

My Lords, in the process of strengthening the campaign against global terrorism, where do we stand on the matter of military pre-emption?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sorry; I did not quite hear the question. Was it "military" or "nuclear" pre-emption?

Lord Boyce


Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord will know that that question has been discussed with particular regard—I must be frank—to what has happened in Iraq. We are all aware that there is an international discussion about the correct circumstances—the legal circumstances—in which military action can be taken.

Your Lordships have discussed on several occasions the legal basis for military action. The question of pre-emption with regard to the rights under the UN charter to self-defence is still unresolved. The noble Lord raises an important issue, but I cannot, at the moment, give a definitive view on it from the Dispatch Box. It is a question of international law that we must address, and I hope that we will address it in such international fora as are available to us. The question is often on the table when I am dealing with such issues bilaterally and in multilateral fora.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, I refer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the Minister's answer to it. Might it not be the case that part of the strategy of international terrorists is to produce a situation in which the liberties of Her Majesty's subjects are curtailed? Should it not be borne in mind, therefore, that any speeches, actions or rhetoric that threaten a reduction in those liberties constitute in themselves a concession to global terrorism?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that point has been argued on a number of occasions. It is part of the aims of international terrorists not only to curtail those liberties but to raise questions about the probity of governments taking military action against terrorists. However, as I said, it is important for us to remember the issue of how we balance our approach to what is, undoubtedly, a terrible problem throughout the world.

Your Lordships must remember that terrorism is a global problem. It is not directed only at the United Kingdom or the United States. We must remember the people who have died in Africa, in Bali, in Istanbul— admittedly, that attack was targeted at British interests—in Russia, which I mentioned a moment ago, and throughout the world. The explosion in the way in which international terrorism is conducted is something that we must all try to deal with through the sorts of means that I have mentioned and by having as open and frank a discussion about the issues as possible. Issues relating to civil liberties are vital, but, in concentrating on those issues, as the right reverend Prelate and others are bound to do, your Lordships must not forget the enormous importance of the security of our own people.

Lord McNally

My Lords, with due deference to the Minister, I do not think that anybody in the House needs to be lectured on the need for balance or for awareness of the global nature of terrorism. Ministers must take on board the kind of advice that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf—I am happy to see him in his place—gave yesterday about anti-terrorist legislation. He said: I am concerned that the voices who are speaking up for the rule of law are being drowned by other voices". Some of the statements made by the Home Secretary and the idea that the next ratcheting-up of anti-civil liberties legislation will do the trick worry a great number of people. The Minister should take those worries properly on board, if the Government are to get the right balance.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the use of pejorative terms such as "lecturing" does not help the debate. I am trying to do an honest job of drawing to your Lordships' attention the question of balance. I do not use pejorative terms, and I do not know why the noble Lord thinks it so necessary or how it helps his argument in any sense.

The noble Lord has directed us again to consider the importance of the rule of law. As I understood him, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, was telling us a moment or two ago how one of the senior Law Officers in the Government, the Attorney-General, made exactly that point yesterday.

Of course, questions of civil liberties are important. Sixteen foreign nationals are detained under the new Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. We think that those individuals are a threat to national security because of their links to international terrorism. So far, two have chosen to leave the United Kingdom voluntarily, as anyone detained under the Act may do at any time. I have to think about the balance between the liberties of those 16 people and the possibility of the havoc in terms of loss of life that could be wreaked by those who, we believe, are a threat to our security. If the noble Lord were in government, he would have to think about that too, and I wonder what he would say to the victims of such terrorism, if he had to face them across a desk.