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Volume 227: debated on Monday 28 June 1993

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3.31 pm

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the United Nations Security Council's consideration of the United States attack on targets in Baghdad.

On 26 June, United States forces launched a military operation against the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service in Baghdad. That action follows discovery by the Kuwaiti authorities of a plot to assassinate ex-President Bush in Kuwait city in mid-April by detonating a car bomb. The consequences if the bomb had detonated would have been devastating and would have led to great loss of innocent life.

On 27 June, the Americans immediately reported the action to the Security Council as required by article 51 of the charter and briefed it on the evidence of Iraqi involvement in the plot and the threat presented to the United States by Iraqi terrorism. That operation was a justified and proportionate exercise of the right of self-defence, and a necessary warning to Iraq that state terrorism cannot and will not be tolerated.

That act of terrorism by the Iraqi regime has to be seen in the context of a pattern of attempted defiance and obstruction by Iraq of the United Nations.

Iraq also continues to detain illegally nationals of Kuwait and other countries. Three British citizens—Paul Ride, Michael Wainwright and Simon Dunn—have been given grotesque prison sentences, along with nationals of the United States, Sweden and Germany. We are doing everything that we can to secure their release.

The international community has achieved progress in dismantling the Iraqi regime's capacity to attack its neighbours and in deterring attacks on its own citizens; but the attempt to kill ex-President Bush is a reminder that the Iraqi state is still a sponsor of terrorism. We believe that only through firmness can Iraq be persuaded to conform to the standards of behavour required of it and others by the international community.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his answer, but I tell him that the American action yesterday was dubious in legality, questionable in morality, haphazard in its military impact, and potentially devastating in diplomacy. It should therefore never have been supported by the British Government.

No one doubts the appalling nature of Saddam's regime, least of all those Labour Members who have campaigned for many years, and no one doubts the need collectively to face up to the threat that he poses both to his own people and his neighbours.

How can it be said that the raid is justified as falling under article 51 of the United Nations charter when the alleged assassination attempt failed anyway? It took place some three months ago, and the trial of the accused people has not been completed. How can it be said to be measured and appropriate, when the target building was in a busy city centre and at least three of the missiles almost predictably failed to hit that target and killed innocent civilians?

How can the action be said to be effective when it has alienated our Arab allies and united Saddam's friends? How can it be said to have enhanced international law and order and the influence of the United Nations when the decision was taken unilaterally by the United States, involved no real consultation with this Government beforehand and went to the Security Council only after it had taken place?

Did our Prime Minister ask President Clinton to take the issue to the Security Council and seek prior authority for it? Did President Clinton tell our Prime Minister what yesterday's target would be? Was the United Nations Secretary-General consulted in any way before the attack happened? Did our Government take into account sufficiently its effect on the British prisoners who languish in Saddam's gaols at present?

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that those of us who are friends of the United States, President Clinton and his Administration—especially those of us who are their friends—are dismayed and troubled by what happened yesterday and believe that the attack should not have taken place? If there is to be a new world order—we all hope that there will be one—it cannot be based on unilateral action taken by any one state, however powerful. If that new order that we all yearn for is to have any chance at all of succeeding, it must be firmly based on international law and the clear authority of the United Nations.

I am surprised by the nature of the hon. Gentleman's response. It seemed to be a throwback to the old days from which I thought the Labour party had recovered. It showed little understanding of the sort of problem that the President of the United States faced when he considered the mounting evidence before him.

I shall try to deal with the hon. Gentleman's specific questions. Article 51 prescribes:
"Force may be used in exercise of a State's inherent right of individual or collective self-defence,"
and that that exercise must be reported immediately to the Security Council. Force may be used in self-defence against threats to one's nationals if: (a) there is good evidence that the target attacked would otherwise continue to be used by the other State in support of terrorist attacks against one's nationals; (b) there is, effectively, no other way to forestall imminent further attacks on one's nationals; (c) the force employed is proportionate to the threat. That is the state of international law as we understand it. However, it must be viewed against the political context, which the hon. Gentleman would not deny.

The Iraqi state has shown time and time again a propensity to engage in state terrorism, so there must be considered to be a constant threat of further attacks. Unless the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party understand that position, they are not understanding the realities with which President Clinton had to deal.

The second question related to consultation. For several weeks since the middle of May, we have been told that, as the United States, and especially the FBI, examined the nature of what occurred, they were considering what further step they would have to take in response. The Americans made it clear that this was to be, if it took place, a United States action, that they would not ask for allied participation in it, but that they would ask for allied understanding and political support. That was the nature of it. We have been kept fully informed as the action continued.

The main gap in the assumptions of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and in his questions to me was the assumption that, before the right of self-defence can be exercised, there needs to be a specific mandate from the United Nations. I ask the hon. Gentleman, "Please think carefully before you put that forward as a received doctrine of an Opposition party."

Well, that was the implication of everything that the hon. Gentleman said. It is simply not possible to lay that down as a doctrine. It must be right, as the United Nations charter recognises, that states preserve and have the right to exercise the right of self-defence without a specific authority each time from the United Nations, provided that they immediately report, as the United States did, on that action to the Security Council. I believe that that is absolutely fundamental to the nature and prospects of world order.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that state-inspired or state-condoned terrorism is one of the most dangerous and evil threats to the stability of the world today, and that it points a dagger at our own societies here in Europe, as well as spreading throughout the middle east and along the north coast of Africa?

Will he therefore agree, as I am sure he will, that, although the loss of innocent lives in any operation of this kind is deeply to be regretted, far fewer have died in this case than have died, are dying and will die if state terrorism of this deliberate kind is allowed to proceed unchecked by a decisive response, such as the response that. the Americans have employed?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I especially agree with what he says about civilian deaths. I do not believe that the targeting can be regarded as disproportionate, given the nature of the target and the nature of the offence. I disagree with the criticism by the hon. Member for Hamilton on that.

I further agree with what my right hon. Friend says about state terrorism. All of us, and Iraq in particular, are required by paragraph (32) of Security Council resolution 687 to give an undertaking not to support state terrorism. That undertaking was given, but has not been honoured. Against the background that I have described, it is legal and reasonable that this measure should have been taken as a response to the assassination attempt and as a signal for the future.

The Foreign Secretary noticeably did not quote the part of article 51 of the charter that makes it clear that the article is intended to be used when there has been an attack on a member nation pending the ability of the Security Council to restore international peace. It was not intended for retaliation against an abortive attack two months ago when the Security Council had not considered the matter.

Surely the right hon. Gentleman must accept that the right course would have been to present the intelligence evidence to the Security Council, together with the evidence from the Kuwaiti trial when it had been completed, and to take action against Saddam's intelligence headquarters as a threat to international peace. That is the orderly way in which to proceed.

As it is, surely the right hon. Gentleman must accept that there are damaging consequences. The Gulf coalition has been broken. The Arab Governments who are under threat from Islamic fundamentalism now find that it is fuelled by the American action. The action also undermines the authority of the United Nations itself. The right hon. Gentleman must tell President Clinton that "might is right" is not the new world order.

I have tried to set out to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House how article 51 stands as regards attacks against the nationals of a member state. I do not accept, as I have said, that it is an inevitable restriction on the rights of member states of the United Nations under article 51 that they should have to receive a specific authority and approval from the Security Council before they exercise that right.

I advise the right hon. Gentleman, as I have advised the hon. Member for Hamilton, not to start to lay that down as a principle of international order. There would be a dangerous state of paralysis if it were accepted.

The Labour party's reaction, far from being surprising, is entirely predictable and, indeed, Pavlovian. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a vigorous response to state terrorism is essential, and that the action of the United States was very necessary—in particular, to show that the change of Administration in Washington had not changed the resolve of the United States Government to force the Iraqi regime to behave in an internationally acceptable way?

My hon. Friend is right. It is very important that Iraq should understand that the change of Administration in the United States, or any other development on the international scene, will not lessen the weight attached by the international community to the need for Iraq to discharge its obligations, including the obligation against state terrorism. The signal for the future is crucial.

It was predictable that the action which was taken would be criticised in some quarters. I am sorry that the Labour party has joined in that criticism, as it shows misunderstanding of what the world needs, which is strict compliance with international law. However, the world requires also firmly shown proof, particularly from the United States, of a willingness to deal with state terrorism.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that two of the people who died in Baghdad on Saturday night included a little baby of 18 months, who was held by its shopkeeper father, and whose mother is critically ill in hospital? Does the right hon. Gentleman know that this act was perpetrated by a country that launched the Bay of Pigs attack, invaded Grenada, invaded Panama, and has itself been guilty of many acts of state terrorism?

Does the right hon. Gentleman know—indeed, he almost confirmed it—that the real motive was to give President Clinton a reputation at home for being tough? The British Prime Minister supported the action, as he is accused of indecision in this country. Before the right hon. Gentleman frames his answer, I should tell him that the brother of the man who was killed—the uncle of the baby—is here today to hear his reply and the first apology for the killing of innocent people in this murderous attack on Baghdad.

A few minutes ago, I expressed regret for the loss of civilian lives. No doubt I was simply saying what a representative of the President of the United States had said already'. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that there should be no response to such attempts at state terrorism—this attempt, if successful, would have resulted in the deaths of a very large number of people not in any way involved in the Gulf war or the argument—he is putting forward an argument for paralysis, which we cannot accept.

While totally deploring the alleged attempted assassination of a former United States President—a friend and ally of this country—may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he realises that, over the next decade, we shall need the support of some Arab countries if we are to contain Iraq and Iran? Does he agree that Hizbollah and Hamas will have been greatly strengthened by the events of the weekend? If he were a moderate in the Arab world, encouraging democracy and respect for human rights—let alone a Palestinian negotiating with the Israelis—his position today would be fragile.

I understand my hon. Friend's point. It is one that was made throughout the Gulf war. It was said constantly in many parts of this country by experts on Middle East affairs that, if the United States and the rest of the west were to take a firm line, there would be flaking away of support for the coalition. This was constantly written and otherwise reported at the time of sanctions and Desert Storm.

It is a risk, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to it. I suspect that what happened before when these warnings were given will happen again. Although those concerned feel doubts and express criticisms, on reflection they will feel safer and more satisfied that the United States is once again prepared to show leadership against an evil from which we and especially those states suffer—that of state terrorism.

While there are real difficulties in dealing with the provocations and crimes of an outlaw regime such as that of Saddam Hussein, surely, in the exchanges between the President and the Prime Minister, it was pointed out to the President that the American case would have been far stronger if action had been deferred until the conclusion of the Kuwaiti trial.

The United States deferred action until the nature of the responsibility was clear from its own investigations. The evidence is there—was in Mrs. Albright's speech yesterday—t that responsibility lay where the missile attack was directed.

As one who agreed entirely with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) said about state terrorism and who believes that the Gulf war should not have ended until Saddam Hussein had been deposed, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that, if we are to have an internationally respected world order, we must be even-handed? Does he agree that those who orchestrate, plan and perpetrate genocide should be treated at least as harshly as those who plan the deaths of presidents?

My hon. Friend has been persistent over months in advocating a more interventionist policy in the former Yugoslavia. That is what he is referring to. We do not have an established world order: we have attempts to create one and a series of tragic situations in which, in one way or another, such order is being breached.

The international community must seek case by case—all these cases are different—the best remedy that it can afford. The two situations—the attempted assassination of ex-President Bush and the war in Bosnia and the crisis alongside it in Croatia—are as different as could be. There is no established world order that would provide equal remedies for each.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that many people in this country are simply nauseated by the alacrity with which the Prime Minister endorsed the American criminal action? What did the Secretary-General of the United Nations say about this?

The Foreign Secretary has the reputation, rightly, of being a humane man. Has he any idea of the sheer horror in places such as the Amariya where missiles struck during the Gulf war? In that place, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), Tim Llewellyn of the BBC and I saw carbonated arms on a ceiling. As in Pompeii, mothers were burnt holding their infants when the missiles arrived.

In such circumstances, can the Foreign Secretary be surprised that the many Iraqi graduates we met who were doubtful about the Ba'athists are now firmly behind Saddam Hussein? This kind of action entrenches the regime.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to bried me after his visit to Iraq. I entirely accept the good faith in which he and his hon. Friend undertook that visit. However, in several respects, the characteristics of a totalitarian regime enabled the two hon. Members to be thoroughly misled about the situation there. I respect the hon. Gentleman's bona fides and his sincerity, but not his conclusions.

I do not believe that, in the end, the cause of humanity—which is what the hon. Gentleman is pleading—is served by allowing attempts of this kind to go without response. I do not believe that it is safe. We can argue about particular targeting and particular procedures, but I disagree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman's main assumption: that regimes like that of Saddam Hussein—given its record and the knowledge that we had of its intentions—should be spared and left alone simply because a response inevitably carries with it the risk of innocent casualties.

Is not the correct historical comparison not with the Gulf war but with the action that the United States took against Libya a few years ago? Should it not be made equally clear to Saddam Hussein, as it was to Colonel Gaddafi, that state-sponsored terrorism is entirely unacceptable?

Does the Secretary of State accept that he cut an uncharacteristically unconvincing figure when he made his opening remarks? The Secretary of State, who knows the middle east very well—and the British Foreign Office, which knows it even better—will know the consequences of 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles landing on an Arab capital. One of the collateral damages was the death in her sleep, with her husband and family, of Leila Attar, a very famous Iraqi painter, who was revered throughout the Arab world.

The Foreign Secretary knows that that raid has detonated a fracture among the Arab allies of this country and the United States, and set in train a further twist to the pattern of fanaticism, extremism and despair which is felt throughout the Arab area, and which imperils the very regimes to which he and the Foreign,Office are so close.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the Arab world will see that raid, as his hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) said, not just as a dramatic comparison with the paralysis over the Bosnian Muslims, but as a tawdry, shabby attempt by a pathetic President of the United States of America to divert attention from his miserable failures at home?

That is not what the historian will record when he looks at the American papers. I have had enough knowledge of this over the last few weeks, from discussions in Washington last month, to know the way in which this was tackled and the way in which the plans for this operation were postponed, put aside and withheld while an authentic and serious investigation took place. That is what the history books will show.

The hon. Gentleman's main point, which is understandable, is similar to the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South. The hon. Gentleman rightly records the risks and criticisms from the area, but running alongside them, and eventually overcoming them, will be a feeling of relief that there is the possibility—nay, the certainty—of firm action against the evils of state terrorism, from which the countries about which he has spoken have been and may well be the chief sufferers.

Would my right hon. Friend take it from me, as someone who has lived and worked in the middle east, that the people I know are much more concerned about firm allies at this dangerous time than legal niceties? Can I also put it to my right hon. Friend that the next time that western interests are in serious danger in the middle east, the Americans may, for one reason or another, be less willing to intervene? It is essential that the countries of western Europe, which in practice means Britain and France, do retain a capacity to intervene ourselves, if necessary.

In this case, the Americans acted; they asked for our support, not our participation. They were entitled to that support, and they were given it.

The Foreign Secretary sought to justify the American action according to the concept of self-defence under international law. He will know that there is a clear distinction in international law between self-defence and reprisal. Is not self-defence essentially a defensive action against the threat of attack, while a reprisal is a punitive action to punish a past unlawful incident? Given those definitions, is it not clear that what we have witnessed is punishment, a reprisal, and not self-defence?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right that that distinction exists, but he is obscuring or ignoring the fact that the threat remains. I told the House about our understanding of the state of international law when there has been an attempt at state terrorism; the threat quite clearly remains, and is a serious one.