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Tariq Aziz

Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Gillian Merron.]

7.26 pm

Over 41 years as a Member of the House, I have initiated just over 100 Adjournment debates. On no occasion have I known less about the subject than I do about today's issue of the detention of Tariq Aziz. I do not know where he is. I do not know in what conditions he is held. Is he in Baghdad? Is he in the continental United States? What were the circumstances in which he went into the hands of the coalition? As I understand it, there is a rumour—I cannot say that it is more than a rumour—that his sister arranged for his going into the hands of the coalition on condition that he should have attention to his three heart attacks. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to enlighten us. After all, it is a coalition responsibility, and as a member of the coalition, we are entitled to ask the Americans what they are doing and what they intend to do.

In 1993 and again in 1998 I went to Iraq. On the first occasion I saw Tariq Aziz in his office. On the second occasion, travelling with the former Irish Prime Minister, the father of the peace process, Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach, we were invited to supper in Tariq Aziz's house. I understand that it was the first time that westerners had been so invited since Edward Heath was invited long before. It was not a particularly sumptuous affair. The meal was made by Mrs. Aziz, with help from a lady who came in.

On that occasion, one of the things discussed at length was Iraq's history. Part of the reason why I was invited may be that my father was the secretary to Sir William Willcocks, the man who did the damming of the Tigris and Euphrates, and was the friend of Leonard Woolley who excavated Ur of the Chaldees and worked for Gertrude Bell, who was Sir Percy Cox's Oriental Secretary.

No, not at the moment, please.

In the circumstances, I feel entitled to ask a rather particular question, of which I have given some notice to the Foreign Office.

The issue that has been raised, and which I raise again, concerns the vital need to protect epigraphic, clay tablet and paper archive written records in Iraq documenting extreme global climate fluctuations in the past 5,000 years. I am indebted to Dr. Richard Grove of the Centre for World Environmental History, whom I have known for a long time, and I put forward his concern.

Currently, human societies face a global climate crisis involving a phase of global warming of unprecedented dimensions. The scientific consensus on this is shown in the official publications of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, and is a consensus with which the British Government implicitly concur in their current and relatively sophisticated policies designed to move towards carbon dioxide emissions reductions.

To understand the likely social, physical and policy implications of the global warming crisis, scientists have no option but to refer to the physical proxy and documentary historical record of previous warming events or other extreme climatic events as analogues of unstable or extreme climate events produced by global warming. For this purpose, the longer the physical or historical record of climate, the more valuable is the analogue for prediction purposes and for the purposes of scientific insight and analysis.

The clay tablet and paper records in Iraq constitute the longest single, largely unbroken climate record known on earth.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am having some difficulty connecting the present passage of his speech with the subject of his Adjournment debate, which is about the imprisonment of a particular individual.

I merely raised the question of the detention of Tariq Aziz, because I know very little about the circumstances. I can only ask the question. However, there is the related question of what is happening to the museum, especially the research that has been carried out in the past decade—and in the past five years in particular—showing that during the past five to 5,500 years—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has vast experience, but nevertheless he is putting me in a difficult position. We cannot have a subject for debate that is put to Mr. Speaker and chosen by him but is the cover for something entirely different. That makes nonsense of the whole system of Adjournment debates. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he must speak to the subject that he has given, and not go on to other matters that do not seem to have any direct relationship to it.

I am always obedient to the Chair. There are other ways of raising the security or otherwise of the tablets. That was a concern of Tariq Aziz. I think that you are being tough on me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course, I obey the Chair. There is an agreement that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) should also participate in the debate.

Order. I do not like to be severe towards the Father of the House, to whose experience I bow. However, I must defend the basic rules of the House. If the subject submitted is the imprisonment of Mr. Tariq Aziz, then that is what we have to debate, and not a related matter, however important in itself.

7.33 pm

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that you will be as gentle with me as you always have been. I am also grateful to the Father of the House, who has allowed me to participate, albeit briefly, in this short but important Adjournment debate.

I hold no brief for Mr. Tariq Aziz, and I can say straight away that I do not wish to have a brief for him. Equally, I hope that at some stage someone will hold a brief for Mr. Tariq Aziz. If he is to be tried, I hope that he will be tried in all the circumstances that we would regard as humane, humanitarian and in the best traditions of our own form of justice.

That is the matter that causes those of us present a certain amount of concern. There are two questions—a wider and a narrower one. Now that I have reached the grist of what I am going to say, I am pleased to see that the Minister is in his place to hear it. The wider question pertains to the legality of actions taken by the coalition in the invasion of Iraq. We had a debate in the House and views were widely aired on both sides. I have never made any secret of my view that the invasion of Iraq was based on very doubtful legality. Whether that will be shown post facto is a matter that we must now consider, but there is a wider issue of legality and it seems to us that its importance is that the more powerful a man, woman or nation is, the more important it is that legality is observed by that man, woman or nation state.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that, as someone who totally disagrees with his views on military intervention in Iraq, I agree that all those major or minor figures who are detained should in due course be brought to justice if charges are to be made? Has not the case of Milosevic demonstrated that, when a powerful figure is detained, charged and arrested, every facility, according to the rule of law, is given to that individual? There is no reason why that should not happen in respect of those who are detained at the moment, if charges are levelled against them in Iraq.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he well knows, although we disagree on a number of issues, we make common cause on others. One of them is civil liberties and those who are affected by the law, be it national or international. To take up the case of Mr. Milosevic for a moment, he is'being tried by a special court set up under the aegis of the United Nations. There are now two such courts and they are concurrently running in respect of Rwanda and Bosnia. I concur entirely with those courts, the way in which they were set up and the way in which those who are before them were brought before them, because there was a measure of transparency in all that. There was a measure of transparency in the arrest of Milosevic, who was arrested and given up by his own people into the custody of that court. In Rwanda, although the position is much more opaque, a similar situation pertains.

It is a matter of concern to us that that is not the case in respect of the detention of Tariq Aziz and others, and nor is it the case, I feel bound to say, in respect of the detention of 600 or so individuals in Camp X-Ray in Cuba, who have now been detained for a very considerable period. What concerns us—it concerns me as a friend of America, which I have always been—is the effect that that form of apparently arbitrary justice will have on America's reputation and that of its allies. I repeat that the more powerful a nation is—there has never been a more powerful nation on earth than the United States of America—the greater the necessity that it should adhere to the rules and canons of international law.

The detention of Tariq Aziz falls to the occupying forces, which have the right under the fourth Geneva convention to implement the laws of the nation that they occupy. Thus, detention itself is not an issue. If he is thought to have committed crimes in due course—I imagine that there is perfectly good evidence that he has been complicit in crimes—detention is not an issue. What is at issue is the nature of that detention and the fact that we do not know anything about its circumstances, whether he is represented, the extent to which he is subject to interrogation and the form of the interrogation to which he is subject. All those matters may be entirely allowable under the aegis of international law, but it is essential that the international community should be aware of what is happening in its name. If we are to be part of a coalition of the willing rebuilding Iraq in a way that brings us all together in common cause, it is essential that the transparency of justice should be maintained.

I hope that the Minister, in answering those questions, will give us some insight into what the Government believe to be the position with Mr. Aziz and other detainees, when they can be brought to trial, the circumstances of their present detention, and the nature of the representation and trial that they may in due course expect.

7.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Bill Rammell)

I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity that has been accorded us by the Father of the House in raising a matter that is important to us all. Certainly, it presents the Government with an opportunity to update Members on the situation regarding Tariq Aziz specifically, but also on the wider Iraq issues concerning detainment and the overall reconstruction and rebuilding process that is taking place in Iraq.

Turning first to Tariq Aziz's detention, the Father of the House and other Members will be aware of a written parliamentary answer recently provided by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), which says:
"Tariq Aziz voluntarily surrendered to the coalition forces in Baghdad and is currently in custody. The coalition partners have had the opportunity to interview Mr. Aziz on a number of topics and this will continue."—[Official Report, 3 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 3W.]
Foreign Office officials recently double-checked that position, and I can confirm that Mr. Aziz remains in US custody in Baghdad and that the International Committee of the Red Cross has been notified and given access to the detention centre where Tariq Aziz and other detainees are being held. We are trying to establish what medical treatment the detainees are receiving, but I can assure Members that all prisoners of war are being treated in accordance with international law and the Geneva conventions.

Does that mean that we, as coalition partners, have not had or sought access to such a key figure? That is surprising. Surely the questioning is not exclusively a matter for the United States, but also for us, and we would want to have access to him. Why have we not, and when will we?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, under the terms of the coalition Iraq is being divided into different parts, with different nations having responsibility for different sectors, and people who are captured in a certain area will be a matter for those detaining authorities. Clearly, there is a process of communication. I am trying to update the House on the position as of this evening. If Members have further questions, I am more than happy to pursue them after the debate.

I should like to take this opportunity to add a number of further points about the coalition's general handling of detainees and prisoners of war. It is too early to determine the nature of any criminal charges that Tariq Aziz and other Iraqi detainees may face; and it is not for this Government to bring those charges. Meanwhile, it bears repetition that those prisoners or detainees, including Tariq Aziz and others on the US list of most wanted former members of the Saddam regime suspected of war crimes are, of course, being dealt with in accordance with international law and the Geneva conventions.

If it is not for the Government to bring charges, who is to bring charges?

The Father of the House anticipates what I am about to say about the way in which I think justice will be brought forward in Iraq.

UN Security Council resolution 1483, which was adopted on 22 May by unanimity, affirms the need for accountability for crimes and atrocities committed by the previous Iraqi regime. It also appeals to member states to deny safe haven to those members of the previous regime who are alleged to be responsible for crimes and atrocities and to support actions to bring them to justice.

The discovery of mass graves in Iraq that became possible only after the fall of the regime has brought home to us all the genuine horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime. The crimes alleged to have been committed by that regime against its own people were, of course, already well known: hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iraqis are reported to have been its victims. We have always believed that the Iraqi leaders most responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes should be brought to justice as soon as possible. I want to make it clear that that is not victor's justice—I know that that is a concern of the Father of the House and other Members in the Chamber—but will be a system of justice brought forward in accordance with international law and the Geneva conventions.

There are strong arguments for allowing the Iraqis themselves to bring to justice those who have committed crimes against them, and we will need to see what sort of investigative and trial processes they can adopt. We know that, under Saddam's regime, Iraq's judicial system became heavily corrupted. That is beyond dispute. Many judges had to leave Iraq and that has unquestionably reduced the Iraqi judicial system's capacity to cope with legacy crimes. Iraq will need international help to rehabilitate its justice system, and we are willing to play a part, together with our coalition partners, in achieving that end.

I should like to give the House some of the political context within which the rebuilding of the judicial system is taking place. It is important to note that UN resolution 1483 delivers on our commitment to lift UN sanctions, set out in the UK's statement produced at the Azores summit, "A Vision for Iraq and the Iraqi People". Resolution 1483 also stresses the fundamental right of the Iraqi people to determine their own political future and control their own resources, and welcomes the commitment of all parties concerned to support the creation of an environment in which they may do so as soon as possible. It explicitly expresses our resolve that the day when Iraqis govern themselves must come quickly.

In accordance with Resolution 1483, Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, has appointed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN high commissioner for human rights, as his special representative for Iraq. Mr. de Mello will work with the coalition provisional administration, the Iraqis and the wider international community to implement resolution 1483. It is important to note that the central political element of resolution 1483 specifically encourages efforts by the people of Iraq to form a representative Government based on the rule of law to afford equal rights and justice to all Iraqi citizens. Crucially, the resolution supports the formation by the people of Iraq—with the help of the coalition authority, working with the UN special representative—of an Iraqi interim Administration as a transitional Administration run by Iraqis, until an internationally recognised representative Government are established at a later stage.

Would it not be of great advantage if open proceedings were to take place against this individual—if charges are to be laid against him—and others who are held responsible for the mass murder of thousands upon thousands of people, so that the Iraqi people themselves can see the rule of law in action? Would that not bring home to them the terrible crimes that have been committed? It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) did not raise the question of human rights when he went to Iraq; I consider that to be totally deplorable.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important for the rebuilding and reconstruction of Iraq that justice is seen to be done. He has a strong track record in relation to making that point. Horrific atrocities have taken place, and I would hope that every hon. Member wants a proper system of judicial process to ensure that charges are brought and taken forward.

I have set out the political context in which that process of judicial reform is being attempted and is taking place. I hope, therefore, that it is clear that it will be for the evolving Iraqi Administration, or the eventual Iraqi Government, to deem themselves ready to consider a series of possible mechanisms for the delivery of justice. Such mechanisms could include special chambers to deal with those most responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide; the use of the Iraqi courts for serious, but lesser crimes; and truth and reconciliation commissions for the least serious offences. This is certainly not the victor's justice that the Father of the House is concerned about.

International help will be needed to enable those mechanisms to be set up. It could take some time before the past crimes of the regime can be prosecuted, but we are already taking steps to ensure that that matter is dealt with. Protecting evidence is a key element in ensuring that that happens, and it has been a paramount concern of the coalition forces to endeavour to preserve the documentary evidence that they encounter during the course of operations that could relate to possible war crimes by the Iraqis and also to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme. I am pleased to confirm that a team of coalition specialists, including forensic experts, has started work on how best to preserve evidence for use in future judicial processes. Their recommendations will be invaluable. As Iraq becomes progressively secured, the activity to amass such evidence can be stepped up.

Given your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I recognise that I am beginning to tread on dangerous territory—before you intervened on the Father of the House you allowed him to make certain concerns plain. I am more than happy to respond, in a limited way.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important point about the need to identify and preserve antiquities, in particular the Sumerian tablets in Iraq. UN security resolution 1483 called on all member states to take appropriate steps to facilitate the safe return to Iraqi institutions of Iraqi cultural property, and called on UNESCO to help. The British Museum has been involved, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is looking beyond the immediate problem of looting and acting to prevent Iraq's treasures from reaching the international art market.

Following a suggestion by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, Foreign Office officials have spoken about the Sumerian tablets to Professor Richard Grove at the University of Sussex. As the Father of the House knows, Professor Grove is a leading expert on such issues. He says that the tablets date back to 2900 BC, and are thought to constitute the oldest script in the world. They are, in fact, some 5,000 years old. He says that they contain important data on climatic events of the time, and are hugely important to our understanding of climate change today.

It was vital to try to find and secure those treasures. I am happy to confirm that we are now taking steps to identify and protect the Sumerian tablets, along with other antiquities. I hope that that will reassure the Father of the House, although I should be happy to engage in further correspondence.

The vital question relates to information about possible El Nino activity—but I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. Let me also put this on record: I think you were absolutely right, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I would not wish for a minute to gainsay that assertion. This has been an important debate. There will undoubtedly be legitimate concerns about people who are detained. I have tried to make clear our understanding of the whereabouts of Tariq Aziz, and to make the important point that at all stages international law and the Geneva convention will be adhered to. But as we seek to rebuild Iraq, we must bear in mind that it has to be an Iraq for the Iraqi people. That means that they must be involved in the process of reconciliation, and the judicial processes that are necessary for the bringing to justice of those who have perpetrated unmentionable atrocities. It is important for the Iraqi people to take the lead in that. Whether it applies to Tariq Aziz or any of the other people who have been detained. I hope that the House agrees that the process is extremely important.

I thank the Father of the House for the opportunity to air these important issues.

I should perhaps say that the Chair always relies on the good will of Members, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for what he said.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eight o'clock.