HL Deb 08 November 2004 vol 666 cc612-5

2.59 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the claims in the Lancet magazine that 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq as the result of the military action by the coalition forces.

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

My Lords, there are no reliable or comprehensive figures for Iraqi civilian casualties. Such estimates that exist are not comparable in terms of periods covered or methodologies used. The Lancet article suggests a range of between 8,000 and 194,000 deaths over the period March 2003 to September 2004, while the Iraq body count website suggests a range of just over 14,270 to just over 16,400 over the same period. The Iraqi Ministry of Health says that just under 4,000 civilians have been killed in the past six months. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has stated that when the Lancet estimates have been analysed, he will make a Statement to another place, and I shall put a copy in your Lordships' Library.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she not agree that if the upper end of the Lancet's estimates were right, that would make nonsense of the claim that the type of modern warfare waged by the coalition in Iraq was the most humanitarian in history? Is it not ironic that the Government are now defending what has happened by citing lower estimates of casualties, which previously they rubbished? And is it not regrettable that it has taken this article for the Foreign Secretary to say that he will do what he should have done long ago—that is, to make a proper estimate of the civilian casualties in this war?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the fact that we have not had reliable figures has been a matter of enormous concern to Her Majesty's Government for quite some time. So I assure the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that this concern has not arisen only in the light of the article in the Lancet. We take these estimated figures very seriously, and the Foreign Secretary has made that clear. But we are cautious about them because they are very different from the figures emerging from other sources, and they have been questioned by a number of independent observers. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, will have read the article in the Lancet, as, indeed, have I. I think that it bears more detailed analysis, and that work is being undertaken on the basis of the Lancet figures in order that my right honourable friend can put forward a detailed Statement.

Lord Garden

My Lords, can the Minister tell us why we do not have the accurate figures? As the Lancet points out, we have responsibilities under Article 27 of the Geneva Convention. Those at the Lancet have carried out a survey. They have explained how they have done it and they conclude: There seems to be little excuse for occupying forces to not be able to provide more precise tallies". Why do we not have more precise tallies?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, again, the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, is absolutely apposite. Obviously we do everything that we can, first, to avoid civilian casualties and, secondly, to try to collect the figures relating to those who have sadly been killed. However, due to the very nature of the fighting that has taken place, it is not always possible to collect accurate estimates. In many cases, we are not on the scene when casualties are incurred. When we are, often we cannot be certain of the numbers involved because the casualties are taken away by their families and others, and we are not then always able to discriminate between those who are insurgents but claiming to be civilians and those who are genuine civilian casualties. Therefore, this fighting is not of the type that lends itself to the accurate analysis that the noble Lord. Lord Garden, and, indeed, I should like to see.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, has the Minister any response to the statement by Kofi Annan relative to the assault on Fallujah, when he expressed deep concern about the possibility of a very large number of civilian casualties?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the best response that I can give to the noble Baroness is that given this morning by the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, Mr Allawi, when he said with a heavy heart: I have today concluded, as did the National Assembly yesterday, that the terrorists and insurgents in Fallujah do not want a political solution. I have concluded I have no option but to take further measures now to protect the people of Iraq from these murderers and to liberate the people of Fallujah". The fact is that many people in Fallujah have asked to be rid of the insurgents in their town and they have requested the help of the IIG to that end.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, on the question of minimising casualties, which I am sure is the Government's principal concern, can the Minister tell the House whether reports in the press that the commander of the Black Watch has expressed serious reservations about its deployment and the risk in which it is being put are accurate?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I know of the reports of which the noble Lord speaks but I have not had the opportunity to discuss them with my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. Of course, your Lordships will be aware that on 4 November three British soldiers were killed in an attack on the Black Watch, together with an Iraqi interpreter, and a further eight soldiers were wounded in a suicide car bomb attack. The fact is that, in these terribly difficult circumstances, sadly our Armed Forces take losses. That is why we take so seriously any decisions about deployment.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords—

Lord Judd

My Lords, in the absence of reliable official estimates of the number of civilian lives lost—estimates which, it is widely felt, should be available—it would be unfortunate if we were to become lost in a debate about the relative merits of particular estimates. Surely the most important point is that, if we are to win the battle for hearts and minds, every innocent civilian life lost in this war and battle is a negative. We must continue to make it a priority to keep civilian casualties to the absolute minimum. I know that my noble friend agrees that we must also make a priority—not as an afterthought but as something that is absolutely central to our position—our concern for civilians who have lost their lives and our concern for all their relatives and dependants.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, of course I can agree with that. The only point I would make to my noble friend is that our concern extends to every life lost. I refer not only to every civilian life but to every life—that is, every military life, every member of the Black Watch and every one of our soldiers. They are all negatives. I am sometimes concerned that we talk only about the loss of civilian life and our concern for civilian life as though the loss of military life is a matter of less concern to us. I know that that is not what my noble friend meant. Estimates are available. The question is how robust those estimates are, and that is why my right honourable friend has asked for a further analysis of the article in the Lancet and other available material.

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