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Volume 300: debated on Monday 10 November 1997

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3.32 pm

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the crisis with Iraq.

Saddam Hussein is once more defying the clearly expressed will of the United Nations and of the international community by refusing to allow the United Nations special commission, UNSCOM, to carry out weapons inspections. It is essential for the region and the rest of the world that UNSCOM be allowed to carry out its work. We know that Saddam Hussein still has the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. UNSCOM is crucial to ensuring that they are all destroyed.

It is clear that Saddam Hussein has misjudged the will of the United Nations. Security Council unanimity was demonstrated in the presidential statement issued the day the threat was made. The Government are determined to stand against Saddam Hussein. He is a dictator who has demonstrated a total lack of interest in the welfare of the Iraqi people. He has shown by his past actions that he is a threat to regional peace and regional security.

The Government are closely consulting other members of the Security Council to explore to the full diplomatic means of resolving the situation. We remain hopeful that Saddam Hussein will realise that co-operation with UNSCOM is the only way for Iraq to progress towards a lifting of sanctions.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Is he aware that everyone in the House hopes that there will be a satisfactory diplomatic solution and that we are all hoping and praying that that will be the case? Is he further aware, however, that the full responsibility for the crisis certainly lies with the Iraqi dictator, and only with the Iraqi dictator?

Was not the Iraqi dictator responsible for the war against Iran started in 1980, which went on for so long? Was he not responsible for the invasion of Kuwait, and for acts of outright butchery inside Iraq, including the gassing of Kurds in 1988? We are indeed dealing with a notorious criminal, a murderous tyrant.

If the international community were to climb down now, what would be the next act by the Iraqi dictator? Is not the lesson to be learnt time and again that if democracies are dealing with such a criminal and murderous dictator, the only way for those democracies to act effectively is to stand firm, not to give in—no appeasement? I hope that that policy will be pursued.

My hon. Friend sets out clearly the indictment sheet against Saddam Hussein. There is a long history of terrible crimes against his own people and other people in the region. My hon. Friend is also right in saying that the United Nations and the British Government are determined to support UNSCOM and to ensure that UNSCOM is able to carry out its work. Without that support, there is a threat to others in the region; we are talking about weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical weapons, and it is crucial that we understand the scale of the threat from Saddam Hussein.

The position taken by the United Nations is not negotiable. We want Saddam Hussein to withdraw the threat to UNSCOM. That is the only position that is acceptable to us.

May I assure the Minister that he has the full support of Her Majesty's Opposition in the response that he has just given? Does he agree that the actions of Saddam Hussein amount to a naked challenge to the authority of the United Nations and therefore to the world community? Does he agree with Sandy Berger, the national security adviser to President Clinton, that Richard Butler, the Australian head of the inspection team, is a total professional, running the inspection operation in an entirely apolitical way?

Will the Minister confirm that the quarrel of the United Nations is with Saddam Hussein, not with the people of Iraq, who suffer most grievously of all from his tyranny? Will he also confirm that if diplomatic means are not successful in resolving this very difficult situation, other methods, including the use of force, have not been ruled out?

Finally, will the Minister give the House an undertaking that he will not allow his handling of the matter to be in any way influenced by his past? Does he now accept that if his support for the peace tax campaign to entitle people to withhold that part of their income tax devoted to defence had succeeded, Britain would not have been able to play any part in upholding international law and order?

I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman's support for the United Kingdom Government and the position taken by the United Nations. I also share his assessment of the work of Butler and his colleagues, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right in saying that that work is apolitical and on behalf of the United Nations. It is important that the principle of United Nations bodies being open to people of all nationalities is preserved, which is why the United Nations has taken the position that it has adopted.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is also right in saying that this is a naked challenge to the authority of the United Nations by Saddam Hussein. It is Saddam Hussein who has put at risk the living standards and the lives of the people of Iraq. We have condemned, and will continue to condemn, all those actions. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is aware that the United Nations resolutions allow Saddam Hussein to use oil revenues for humanitarian purposes, and we have had the greatest difficulty in persuading Saddam Hussein to do so.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman also asked whether we would rule out any options in our response. From the very first moment when Saddam Hussein uttered his threat, we have made it clear that no option is ruled out. That is still the United Kingdom Government's position.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for all the earlier comments that he made. I suspect that, when he looks at his response to my important statement to the House, he will regret his cheap final comments.

May I plead with my hon. Friends to be extremely cautious before endorsing American unilateral actions? I visited Baghdad three years after the war and, like every other visitor, I was taken on the first morning to Amariya, to the bomb shelter hit by a cruise missile, where charred bodies were sketched into the walls. Far from weakening the Tikriti group and Saddam Hussein, such an attack strengthens Saddam Hussein's position.

Earlier this month, I spent a 17-day holiday—paid for by me, incidentally—in Iran. Those who lost a million people in that nine-year war do not think that it is right for the Americans to start launching cruise missiles on their neighbour. Would it not be much better at least to hear what Tariq Aziz has to say and to realise that we are dealing with desperate people who feel that they have nothing to lose in order to end the sanctions that are creating such misery? Those who have been round a children's hospital in Baghdad, as I have, and seen infants expiring in their presence—this is no exaggeration—take a different view of the effect of sanctions.

I never doubt my hon. Friend's sincerity, but he needs to look at the tactical and strategic options before the world community. If we allow Saddam Hussein to defy the United Nations and the world community, we offer him a green light to terrorism against his own people and others in the region. We must stand firm, because that is the principle which the history of the 20th century has taught us.

Is the Minister aware that both sides of the House recognise that, in seeking a successful outcome without hostilities through every available diplomatic means, it is essential that the international community speaks as one and betrays neither disunity nor lack of resolve? However, military action by Iraq against a plane or personnel engaged in performing a UN mandate would be intolerable and, in extremis, that must be met by firm but proportionate force. Will the Minister assure the House that if British military assets are committed in that way, the matter will be reported to the House at the earliest opportunity?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party. We share his concerns about the nature of the regime in Iraq and the need to take concerted action. He will recall that the presidential statement made 10 days ago was a unanimous presidential statement from the Security Council. We are working with our colleagues to ensure that we maintain diplomatic unanimity in our response to Saddam Hussein. I repeat that the crucial point for us all is that Saddam Hussein must understand the message that we are not in a negotiating position; there are no compromises; he must accept that UNSCOM can do its work. That is in the interests of the Iraqi people and the people of the region. We cannot allow that dictator to continue to develop weapons of mass destruction.

In considering the options that lie before the Government, will the Minister take into account the fact that independent sources suggest that more than half a million children under five have died in Iraq as a direct result of the sanctions? Those people have no power whatever to topple President Saddam Hussein, who, in the course of his life, has received enormous support from successive British and American Governments, notably during the Iran-Iraq war.

Will my hon. Friend also give consideration to the fact that the French, the Chinese and the Russians, who are all permanent members of the Security Council, have indicated that they could not authorise the use of force without an explicit Security Council resolution, and that the secretary-general of the Arab League, representing important interests in the area, has come out strongly against the use of force? Other means must be found to deal with the situation.

Let me correct my right hon. Friend's assertion in two respects. First, in relation to the statement issued by the Security Council on UNSCOM, there was no division among the permanent members of the Security Council: there was unanimity across the Security Council for the presidential statement. If we try to create false divisions, the only person who will gain any advantage from that is Saddam Hussein.

Secondly, the United Nations resolutions have throughout provided the opportunity for Saddam Hussein to sell oil in order to improve the well-being of the people of Iraq. The simple fact is that he has not taken those opportunities. Do not blame the United Nations; do not blame the British Government; blame Saddam Hussein. He would prefer to spend money on weapons of mass destruction rather than on the people of Iraq. We understand the scale of his values and the nature of his priorities. That is why world opinion must be solidly against him.

I support the Minister's statement. Can he assure us that his Department, which recognises the value of diplomacy in a crisis such as the present one, also recognises the importance of other means, to which he alluded, to underpin that diplomacy? May we, therefore, take it for granted that his Department will be making representations during the current defence review, to ensure that the Ministry of Defence in the United Kingdom has adequate military means to underpin our diplomacy wherever that may be necessary, to contain threats to peace and to contain dictators such as Saddam Hussein, who are engaged on programmes for the development and construction of weapons of mass destruction?

On the hon. Gentleman's second question relating to our military capacity, the answer is yes. Those views will be expressed clearly during the review of Britain's military capacity. On his first question, we have said on many occasions since the presidential statement was issued from the United Nations that we do not rule out any option, and we are very clear in our language.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his strong words on the issue. Will he remind the shadow Foreign Secretary that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a member of the previous Government, who helped to arm Saddam Hussein, and that many of the components for the weapons of mass destruction were supplied to him during that time?

We have all been to Iraq and seen the situation there. The sanctions apply to the north and the south. There are people who are short of food and medicines in both the north and the south. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend knows, throughout the period of the UN sanctions, those sanctions have been busted, with the complicity of the people on the borders, who should have been checking that the sanctions were adhered to.

I hope that my hon. Friend will continue in his decisive and robust assessment of the situation, and that if military action becomes necessary, we shall be party to it.

My hon. Friend has a long history of interest in Iraq and the problems facing the people of Iraq. She makes a powerful case for looking at the history of northern and southern Iraq, and at what has happened to the Kurds in the north and to the marsh Arabs in the south, both of which communities have been victims of Saddam Hussein. It is worth putting it on the record that both communities are victims of the dictatorship of their own leadership.

With regard to my hon. Friend's point about the previous Administration and their responsibility for arming Saddam Hussein, I concur with her. It would be wrong to get into cheap party political point scoring. We have already had one example of that, which failed miserably, and I do not want to follow the example of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and lower the tone further.

The Minister said correctly that diplomatic channels are the best means of resolving the critical problem facing us. Will he confirm whether additional intermediaries are being used in the negotiation process with Saddam Hussein? Will the Minister advise the House of the attitude of the NATO alliance in the context of his assertion that no option will be ruled out? Will he also reassure hon. Members like me who represent constituencies where Tornados are based? The 12th squadron from Lossiemouth is currently engaged in surveillance and peacekeeping operations and is expected to return home by the end of the month. What reassurance can I provide to my constituents that they need not fear for the fate of their husbands and for all those working on Tornados?

It might be useful if I take this opportunity to reassure the hon. Lady and other hon. Members that we are not in a negotiating position. The Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, will report to the United Nations this afternoon about the mission that he sent to Baghdad. It was not a negotiating mission, but was intended simply to remind Saddam Hussein of the United Nations resolutions and the presidential statement, and to make it clear that there is only one option available: Saddam Hussein must comply with the United Nations resolutions. If he does not do that, I repeat that all options will be available to us and that we shall consider each and every one of those options in order to identify the best means of achieving the United Nations objectives.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, under international law, there is a right of unconditional access to the sites for purposes of weapons inspection? It would establish a disastrous precedent if Saddam Hussein or anyone else were able to pick and choose from which nations the members of the inspection team came or with which clauses of the relevant United Nations resolutions he wished to comply. Surely the credibility of the United Nations as a world organisation is at stake in this crisis.

My hon. Friend is right both on the legal points and in terms of the implications for the United Nations. However, I must add a further point. The UNSCOM task is to deal with weapons of mass destruction. We are talking about not only nice legal or procedural points regarding the United Nations but the well-being of people in that region. Would any hon. Member trust Saddam Hussein with chemical and biological weapons? I suspect that the answer is self-evident.

I welcome the Government's and the Minister's firm resolve to resist the activities of Saddam Hussein. I draw the Minister's attention to some remarks made in this building only last Friday night by the former Commander-in-Chief of United Kingdom forces during the Gulf war, Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine. He made the point that, during the Gulf war, it was difficult trying to fight while seeing on television endless speculation about military options. Will the Minister join me in asking the media to resist the temptation of setting out all the military options—there are only a relatively small number—so that our forces are not put at risk and the Government's policy is not undermined?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must assess all the options. As to the military options—if we ever reach that situation—the assessments must be made in private and not in newspapers or in television studios. That is clearly in the best interests of any personnel who are engaged in military activities.

Is it not true that, if we had heeded the voice of those who opposed the war in 1991 and who tried to insist that we go down the sanctions route, Saddam Hussein would be today strutting round the streets of Kuwait? Is not the only way out of this dilemma to deal with him in the way that we have done in the past? It is the only language that that man understands. If we do not take action, Saddam Hussein will issue a threat against the developed world and it will be too late for us to meet it.

I agree with my hon. Friend's statements and the way in which he made them. Not only would Saddam Hussein be strutting round the streets of Kuwait, but I suspect that the dangers that he poses to other countries in the region would have materialised. We must get across the message that weapons of mass destruction know no boundaries or international obstacles. They could be used against any country in any circumstances.

I support the Minister's measured tones. I regret that some hon. Members may, on humanitarian grounds, give succour to one of the most despotic creatures that the world has known. He has massacred many of his family and his citizens. We should not relieve him of the responsibility for the death of children in his nation. May I plead that any statements of support should express support for the United Nations decision? At no time should we appear to be joining in just because of leadership from the United States. It is important that those who make decisions in the United Nations should stand together and not leave it to one or two countries to do the policeman's work for the world.

I am pleased to re-emphasise the need for United Nations unanimity and for us to work with our partners on such issues. We are working on behalf of the United Nations and the international community. I welcome the first part of the hon. Gentleman's comments. The humanitarian balance is often difficult to strike, but we know from the lessons of the 20th century that appeasement leads to more loss of life than does taking a firm stand on principle.

Does the Minister recognise that any analysis of the Gulf war or the Iran-Iraq war shows that one of the causes was the voracious appetite of arms salesmen around the world? Is he not concerned that the huge level of arms sales to Turkey over the past few years, the massive recent invasion of northern Iraq by Turkish armed forces and Turkish intentions in the region also pose a threat to peace? What is the Government's attitude towards the Turkish incursion in a neighbouring country?

The first part of my hon. Friend's question was about arms sales. One reason for publishing our criteria for arms sales in July was so that our decisions should be open, clear and accountable. I have no doubt that he welcomed those criteria.

We have said since May, when the first Turkish incursion in northern Iraq took place, that we are seriously concerned about the territorial integrity of Iraq. We have strongly advised Turkey that any action taken should be commensurate with any threat perceived by Turkey. Our position is clear.

Are not the people of Iraq faced with terrible conditions? On the one hand, they have Saddam Hussein's totalitarian dictatorship, which terrorises and exploits them. On the other hand, they have United Nations sanctions that bring about starvation, deprivation, lack of medical supplies in hospitals and the death of women and young children in droves. Have the United Nations or the Government applied themselves to resolving the terrible conundrum for the people of Iraq?

My hon. Friend's analysis is factually flawed. The United Nations resolutions provide Saddam Hussein with the opportunity to use oil revenues to meet the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. My hon. Friend should address his question to the Iraqi dictator, who feels that it is in the interests of Iraq to spend money on weapons and military hardware rather than on the people of Iraq.