Skip to main content

Libya (London Conference)

Volume 526: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the outcome of the London conference on Libya and related events.

I informed the House last Thursday that planning was under way to transfer coalition operations from US to NATO command and control. On Sunday, NATO allies decided to take on full responsibility for the implementation of all military aspects of Security Council resolution 1973, including the civilian protection mission, along with the no-fly zone and arms embargo operations which are now under NATO command. The transition to full NATO command is under way. The North Atlantic Council will provide executive political direction for the military operations, and is meeting later today. I hope the whole House will welcome the speed with which NATO has moved to put in place the planning and launch of those three demanding operations more quickly than was the case for Bosnia or Kosovo.

There are currently 16 nations contributing assets to coalition operations, including nations from the middle east region. Fifteen nations have now committed a total of nearly 350 aircraft, and vessels from 10 nations are supporting the arms embargo. Yesterday, Sweden announced that it would contribute eight fighter aircraft, and the United Arab Emirates publicly announced its contribution of 12 air defence fighters on Friday last week. The NATO Secretary-General has issued a request for further contributions, which we hope other countries will consider seriously.

UK forces have undertaken more than 160 aerial missions over Libya since operations began, in addition to missile strikes. We are continuing to target the military hardware that Gaddafi is using to kill his own people. Over the weekend, in addition to patrolling the no-fly zone, RAF aircraft destroyed a number of main battle tanks and armoured vehicles near Misrata. The RAF also took part in a successful coalition mission against an ammunition storage facility store near Sabha early on Monday morning.

As evidence of the care that we are taking to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, yesterday I received a letter from the local council in Misrata thanking Britain and our allies for the targeted strikes and the enforcement of the no-fly zone, which are alleviating pressure on the people of Misrata. The letter stated that the local council could

“testify for the effectiveness and the accuracy of those strikes and confirm that there has been not a single case of civilian injury let alone death in and around Misrata”

as a result of coalition activity. That is testament to the skill, experience and precision of our armed forces, and the whole House will join me in paying tribute to them. Our country literally could not do without them for a single day, and they are doing a great job in support of the civilian population of Libya.

The situation on the ground remains fluid. Regime forces have intensified their attacks, driving back opposition forces from ground that they had taken in recent days. Misrata also came under heavy attack yesterday, with further loss of civilian life, including children, from mortars, sniper fire and attacks on all sides from regime tanks and personnel carriers. The Department for International Development has been involved in funding the successful provision of humanitarian assistance to the city, and we are urgently examining options for the provision of further assistance. One obstacle to humanitarian support for the people of Misrata has been regime vessels trying to blockade the port. Those vessels were attacked by coalition aircraft yesterday and four of them were sunk and one was beached.

To underline our grave concern at the regime’s behaviour, I can announce to the House that we have today taken steps to expel five diplomats at the Libyan embassy in London, including the military attaché. The Government judged that were those individuals to remain in Britain, they could pose a threat to our security. We also remain strongly committed to supporting the International Criminal Court in its investigations into crimes in Libya and to ensuring that there is no impunity for barbaric acts against the Libyan people.

In my last statement to the House, I confirmed that I had invited the envoy of the interim transitional national council, Mahmoud Jabril, to visit London. He did so yesterday, for meetings with me and with the Prime Minister and to launch the council’s vision for a democratic Libya. I will place a copy of that document in the Library of the House.

A British diplomatic mission also visited Benghazi on Monday and Tuesday this week, headed by a senior British diplomat, Christopher Prentice. The purpose of the mission was to meet key Libyan opposition groups in eastern Libya, including the ITNC and its military council; to gain a greater insight into the political and security situation; to explain British Government policies towards Libya; and to discuss future governance arrangements in Libya, including identifying what Britain can do to help. The team met the president of the ITNC, Mustafa al-Jalil, among others. It has now left Libya, and further missions will follow shortly.

Yesterday, delegations including more than 30 Foreign Ministers, the UN Secretary-General and representatives of the Arab League, the European Union, NATO and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference met in London. Our Government went into the conference with three objectives, all of which were met. The first was to strengthen and broaden the international coalition committed to implementing Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973. This was achieved. Many more countries were involved in the conference and supporting our objectives than at the time of the Paris summit 11 days ago.

Secondly, we aimed to focus attention on the delivery of urgent humanitarian assistance to alleviate suffering in Misrata and at Libya’s borders, and to plan for the needs of Libya after conflict. The conference agreed priorities for a humanitarian response and welcomed an offer from the UN Secretary-General to lead the co-ordination of humanitarian assistance and planning for longer-term stabilisation support. Turkey, other key regional players and international agencies offered to support that work and take it forward.

Contingency military planning also continues in the EU to enable support to humanitarian operations, if so requested by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as agreed at the European Council last Friday. It is right that we start planning now to support Libyans over the long term to build a peaceful and prosperous future.

Thirdly, we argued that the conference must agree the need for a political process, led by the Libyan people, that helps to create the conditions in which the people of Libya can choose their own future, supported by the international community. Military action is not an end in itself. The announcement of a political programme by the ITNC was an important first step in that process. The conference was also attended by the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Libya, Mr al-Khatib, who travelled to Libya last night. The conference agreed that Gaddafi has lost all legitimacy, and to continue efforts to isolate him and his regime by considering additional sanctions on individuals and companies associated with the regime.

We agreed to establish a Libya contact group to take that work forward. The contact group will provide leadership and overall political direction to the international effort to support Libya; act as a forum for co-ordinating international policy on Libya; and provide a focal point in the international community for contact with the Libyan parties. Qatar has agreed to convene the first meeting of the group, which we will co-chair. Thereafter, the chairmanship will rotate between the countries of the region and beyond it.

Security Council resolution 1973 laid out very clear conditions that the Gaddafi regime must meet, including the establishment of an immediate ceasefire, a halt to all attacks on civilians and full humanitarian access to those in need. Participants in the conference agreed to continue their efforts until all those conditions are fulfilled. The Libyan regime will be judged by its actions and not by its words.

The London conference showed that we are united in our aims—seeking a Libya that does not pose a threat to its own citizens or to the region, and working with the people of Libya as they choose their own way forward to a peaceful and stable future. It also demonstrated clear international support for the people of Libya. With that support, there is every prospect of focused and sustained assistance to the people of Libya as they seek to determine their own future.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, although I regret that a copy of it was not made available timeously ahead of Prime Minister’s questions. None the less, I place on record my appreciation for the work of Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers and officials in facilitating yesterday’s London meeting.

The meeting made progress on a number of fronts on which the Opposition had specifically sought action. The establishment of a friends of Libya contact group is something that I have advocated for some weeks, and I now welcome it. Let me re-state our support for the work of our armed forces—both the RAF and the Royal Navy—in implementing UN Security Council resolution 1973. I also join the participants in the summit in welcoming the UN Secretary-General’s offer to lead the co-ordination of humanitarian assistance and planning for longer-term stabilisation support.

Although progress was made yesterday, comments from both inside and outside the conference have raised real questions for the Government. First, from the outset of this crisis, the Opposition have been keen that the Arab League and the African Union play a strong role. The Arab League was an early supporter of a no-fly zone, and African members of the Security Council supported resolution 1973. There will therefore be concerns that Saudi Arabia failed to attend yesterday’s conference, and although we welcome the presence of representatives of Tunisia and Morocco, there were few African states at the table and no representative of the African Union. Can the Foreign Secretary explain that and update the House on what work is being done to broaden and deepen the coalition of support for action beyond those who attended yesterday’s conference?

Secondly, the question regarding the arming of rebels of the eastern part of Libya has two parts: would it be legal, and if it were, would it be advisable? Yesterday, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said on the legality of arming the forces of eastern Libya:

“It is our interpretation that 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition of arms to anyone in Libya so that there could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose to do that.”

Two weeks ago, in a debate following the passage of resolution 1973, the Prime Minister was asked the same question about the resolution by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). He replied that

“our legal understanding is that that arms embargo applies to the whole of Libya.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 623.]

The summary legal memorandum that the Government provided to the House for the debate on United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 is silent on this question. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary appeared to be moving closer to the US position, saying:

“Those resolutions in our view apply to the whole of Libya, although it is consistent with resolution 1973 to give people aid in order to defend themselves in particular circumstances.”

Will he therefore give the House his view on the legality of arming anyone in Libya under the terms of both Security Council resolutions? Given the importance and significance of this issue, will he also undertake to update the summary legal memorandum and to place copies of it in the Library of the House of Commons, so as to set out definitively the Government’s position on the interpretation of the Security Council resolutions?

The issue of the legality of arming the rebels sits alongside the issue of its advisability. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe warned yesterday:

“We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential Al Qaeda, Hezbollah”.

This is therefore a pressing and urgent question for the Government. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will agree with me that, to date, the case has not been made on the advisability of taking this course of action. Of course we would all prefer a Libya without Gaddafi, but, given our lack of knowledge about some elements of the rebel forces, does he agree that we must proceed with very real caution on the question of armaments? Can he confirm that all efforts are being made to identify the risk of links to al-Qaeda? Further, can he confirm whether Libyan nationals, including from eastern Libya, have been involved in the insurgency that opposed our troops in Iraq or in the continuing conflict in Afghanistan?

The other question that has been raised in the past day is that of Gaddafi himself. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has said that he is “one hundred per cent” certain that his investigation will lead to charges of crimes against humanity against Gaddafi and his regime. Yesterday, however, the Foreign Secretary’s ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), said that Britain

“would not stand in the way”

if Gaddafi were to leave the country. Can the Foreign Secretary set out the Government’s position on whether they would now be prepared for Gaddafi’s escape from international justice in order to prevent further bloodshed?

On 21 March, the Government received a specific mandate from the House for a specific mission in Libya, as set out in Security Council resolution 1973. I welcome the fact that post-conflict planning is now more firmly on the international agenda after yesterday’s meeting, but may I take the Foreign Secretary back to what the US President said when resolution 1973 was passed? He said that the resolution

“authorizes the use of force with an explicit commitment to pursue all necessary measures to stop the killing, to include the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. It also strengthens our sanctions and the enforcement of an arms embargo against the Qaddafi regime.”

President Obama continued:

“The resolution that passed lays out very clear conditions that must be met. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Arab states agree that a cease-fire must be implemented immediately. That means all attacks against civilians must stop. Qaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya, and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya.”

Can the Foreign Secretary therefore confirm whether, in the view of the British Government, the achievement of those conditions set out by President Obama still represent the fulfilment of the mission? Hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome a Libya free of Gaddafi’s tyranny, but the consent of the international community—and the consent of the House—was given for a specific mission, with specific aims and limitations.

As I said at the outset of this crisis, the Opposition will provide support for the enforcement of the UN resolution and sustained scrutiny of its implementation. In that spirit, I ask the Foreign Secretary to provide greater clarity in his reply, particularly on the questions of the legality of arming the rebels, the character of some of the anti-Gaddafi forces, the role of the International Criminal Court and the limited nature of this mission.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for continuing the wide support for the idea of a contact group. It received unanimous support at the conference yesterday, which is why it was so easy to proceed with it and, indeed, with recognising the role of the UN Secretary-General in offering to lead the co-ordination of humanitarian assistance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the attendance or otherwise of the Arab League and the African Union. The Arab League was well represented at yesterday’s meeting. The Secretary-General, Amr Moussa, was not able to come and he explained to me why he could not, but he sent his chef de cabinet, an ambassador, who made a powerful speech at the conference on the Arab League’s strong support for implementing the UN Security Council’s resolutions and for the action taken so far. No one should be in any doubt about the position of the Arab League. It is true, of course, that the African Union did not attend; there were divisions within in it over whether it should. We are in constant touch with the African Union and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is in almost daily touch with its chairman. I have had several conversations about this issue with President Museveni of Uganda. Clearly, the African Union does not have a united position, but we will invite it to engage with the contact group that we are establishing and we will keep our regular communication going.

On the question of arming the rebels, the Prime Minister made the position clear at Prime Minister’s questions. We have said that everything we do must comply with the Security Council resolutions, which also relates to the right hon. Gentleman’s last point. It is a point I make constantly—that everything we do must be consistent with those resolutions. It is acting strictly in accordance with UN resolutions that gives a legal, moral and international authority to our deeds, which has not, of course, always been there before. As I have already told the House, and as the Prime Minister said in the debate a couple of weeks ago, the legal position is that the arms embargo applies to the whole territory of Libya. At the same time, our legal advice is that resolution 1973 allows all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas and that this would not necessarily rule out the provision of assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances. Clearly, there are differing views internationally about the legal position, but I have explained what is the view of the British Government. As the Prime Minister told the House, we do not rule it out, but we have not taken any decision to provide that assistance.

In response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the Prime Minister also indicated at Prime Minister’s questions that the Government would indeed proceed with caution on this subject, as the shadow Foreign Secretary asked us to do. Questions of advisability, as the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly says, are different from questions of legality. We will always be very conscious of that. Of course, if we changed our policy, we would certainly want to inform the House, but we are not currently engaged in any arming of the opposition or rebel forces.

Of course we want to know about any links with al-Qaeda, as we do about links with any organisations anywhere in the world, but given what we have seen of the interim transitional national council in Libya, I think it would be right to put the emphasis on the positive side, as the Prime Minister did earlier. From everything we saw from our meetings with members of the council yesterday and from telephone conversations I have had with other members, I believe it is sincere in its commitment to a pluralistic, open Libya. The council published yesterday what is in effect its manifesto, which states its commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the media, to the development of political parties and civil society and so forth. I think we should welcome that and I think there is a genuine and strong desire in Libya among the opposition groups to bring those things about. It would give the wrong impression of those groups, from everything we have seen and everything that our diplomat, Christopher Prentice, saw in Benghazi, to accentuate any allegations of links with other groups outside Libya rather than to accentuate those intentions that they clearly hold dear to their hearts.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the International Criminal Court. I mentioned in my statement how strictly we uphold its work. The United Kingdom has always done so under successive Governments and it will continue to do so. That does not mean that we can control what happens to Colonel Gaddafi, but we are not proposing to grant him any exemption from the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. That was something that we proposed should be part of UN resolution 1970.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the conditions set by President Obama on behalf of the coalition when the military operations began. Yes, those conditions still apply—the conditions of a real ceasefire, not just a pretend ceasefire. It does not mean the regime sitting in the middle of a town like Misrata and still being engaged at close quarters with the civilian population it is trying to kill. Clearly, a credible ceasefire involves disengaging from those areas. Events have moved on since President Obama made his statement, which was about not advancing on Benghazi. Since then, that has become less relevant, although we do not know whether it will become relevant again. We understand and interpret the requirement for a ceasefire and an end to violence in terms of those general conditions, which involve disengagement in order to fulfil the UN resolution. That reinforces our continuing rigid approach to enforcing the UN resolution and to staying within the UN resolution. We must also keep the international unity and moral authority that our conduct of affairs so far has given us on this issue.

May I strongly disagree with the shadow Foreign Secretary and welcome the statement by the American and British Governments that military supplies to the insurgents would be permissible under the UN resolution if that were appropriate to protect civilian-populated areas? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the physical safety of the people of Tripoli and other parts of Libya will be ensured only if there is a speedy end to this civil war leading to the departure of Gaddafi, and that that cannot be achieved by coalition air power alone, but only if the insurgents—they are no longer rebels, as there is no longer any legitimacy for the Government in Tripoli—are properly assisted to bring this war to an end as soon as possible so that a no-fly zone is no longer required?

I can go so far with my right hon. and learned Friend. He is quite right about the utter absence of legitimacy for the Gaddafi regime now, and I accept his welcome for the statement of the legal position on the supply of arms that we have set out; the United States Government also provided their version of that position. Nevertheless, I underline what I said to the shadow Foreign Secretary—that questions of advisability and policy would have to be examined in this regard, not just questions of legality. One can make the argument that my right hon. and learned Friend makes, but one can also make the argument that introducing new weapons into a conflict can have unforeseeable and unknown consequences both for the immediate future and for the longer term. Such considerations would have to be very carefully weighed before the Government changed their policy on this matter.

May I reinforce the appreciation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) for the Foreign Secretary by offering my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman on the way in which he has handled this conference? The fact that the Foreign Secretary did it on an inclusive basis is, as I saw on a visit to Turkey last weekend, much acknowledged and appreciated in that country and across the region. With that in mind, I turn briefly to the issue of arms supplies to the rebels. First, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, however interesting it is for us to debate the issue of legality, the decision about the legality of any such action and the interpretation of the dense texts of these resolutions is a matter for the Attorney-General and for him alone? Secondly, does he accept that if it is lawful, it becomes a matter of advisability, as he says, and that what is critical in all this is that in making any decisions, the international coalition—especially the support of the Muslim and Arab world—is paramount?

Yes, I think that I can happily agree with all of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Maintaining that breadth of international coalition is very important. We have said all along that the support of the Arab League and the participation of Arab nations—the Organisation of the Islamic Conference was represented strongly yesterday—were of huge importance, and they will continue to be of huge importance. We must not take actions that jeopardise that support.

I also strongly take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about Turkey, which played a major role in our conference yesterday. I shall have further talks with the Turkish Foreign Minister this afternoon and with the Turkish Prime Minister tomorrow. The coalition Government continue to build the strongest possible bilateral relationship with Turkey, as we have done over the past 10 months.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on a successful conference, which was an important milestone in allowing the Libyans to decide their own future. As for the arms embargo, does he agree that there is a big difference between arming the rebels to enable them to protect themselves, and arming the rebels to enable them to attack Gaddafi, which is tantamount to regime change?

Certainly there would be a big difference between those positions. My hon. Friend should bear in mind what I said earlier, and what the Prime Minister said, about our interpretation of Security Council resolution 1973—that it does not necessarily rule out the provision of assistance for those protecting civilians in certain circumstances. This is very much about protecting civilians. It is not about weapons that would be used primarily for attack, and it is certainly not about a general arming of one side in the conflict. So yes, there is a clear distinction between those actions.

As the Foreign Secretary has acknowledged, the issue of arming the insurgent groups has three dimensions. The first is legality, the second is our shallow knowledge of all the people involved in those insurgencies, and the third is the impact on the international community, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) persuaded the Foreign Secretary to discuss. Can he give some indication of the feedback that he has received from different partners in this operation about their attitude to the arming of the insurgent groups?

I agree that there are those three dimensions, but I believe that it is for other countries to state their positions. I do not think that it would be right for me to go through a checklist of countries and announce any attitudes that they have expressed to Her Majesty’s Government in private—I do not think that that would be very diplomatic—and I therefore fear that I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the information that he has requested. I can say, however, that although there is a variety of views on the issue, all the nations involved in the conference are of the same mind. That was made clear during the press conference that I held with the Prime Minister of Qatar last night. However those nations interpret the resolutions, it is not their policy at this moment to engage in arming particular groups in Libya. I believe that there is an international consensus on that.

Some of us remain of the view that the west’s intervention is as much about regime change as it is about humanitarian aid. Will the Foreign Secretary make absolutely clear whether it is the Government’s view that UN Security Council resolution 1973 would allow a no-fly zone, in effect, to follow the rebels should they wish to attack Tripoli, and also allow the west’s fighter planes to hit Gaddafi’s ground forces in Tripoli if that were to be the case?

I disagree with some of my hon. Friend’s assumptions. This is not a western intervention but the enforcement of a United Nations resolution for which African and Arab nations voted, and Arab nations are participating in the enforcement of that resolution. The no-fly zone applies to the whole of Libya, and it is in force over a very wide area of Libya. Of course that includes Tripoli, and will continue to include Tripoli whatever the circumstances on the ground. As I keep stressing, air strikes against ground forces of the regime have been and will continue to be used—in accordance with the UN resolution—on forces that are attacking, or can be used to threaten to attack, or pose a threat of attack, to civilian and populated areas.

Earlier this week the Prime Minister told us that the African Union would be represented at the London conference, although he did not know the individual concerned. The Foreign Secretary has referred to some internal difficulties in the African Union, but has said in earlier answers that it has a potential role in providing for a ceasefire or a peaceful solution. Can he tell us more about why the African Union did not attend, and when the British Government were informed that it would not do so?

The position of the African Union on attendance changed several times during the days preceding the conference, owing to internal disagreements. Only at the last moment—the night before the conference, I believe—was it certain that the African Union would not attend. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, we are engaged in constant dialogue with the African Union, and it has an important role to play. We will continue that dialogue, and I hope that the African Union will join a contact group.

I do not think that the basis of the disagreements within the African Union comes as any surprise. Yesterday’s conference expressed strong support for the implementation of the resolutions and for the actions that we are taking, including the military action, under operative paragraph 4 of resolution 1973. Some African nations find that difficult. Some of them have been the closest of all nations in the world to the Gaddafi regime, and it is not surprising that that creates some tensions in the African Union and makes it more difficult for it to engage in a conference of this kind.

Last week I had contact with someone who opposed Colonel Gaddafi in Tripoli. Having had some experience of what people such as the members of Colonel Gaddafi’s security organisation may be doing, I am quite concerned about what is happening in the streets and alleys of Tripoli. Has my right hon. Friend any knowledge of what action Gaddafi is taking against likely opponents within Tripoli?

My hon. Friend is right to raise those fears. A report produced yesterday by Amnesty International quotes its middle east and north Africa director as saying:

“It appears that there is a systematic policy to detain anyone suspected of opposition to Colonel al-Gaddafi's rule, hold them incommunicado, and transfer them to his strongholds in western Libya”.

He is also quoted as saying:

“there is every reason to believe that these individuals are at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment.”

Given the reports from Amnesty International and other reports that have appeared in the media, and the kind of things that have been communicated to my hon. Friend, I think we can be confident that this is a regime with absolutely no regard for human rights, for human life, or for the welfare of the people of its own country. That is why, in the eyes of virtually of the whole world, it has utterly lost its legitimacy.

I am slightly concerned about the fact that the Foreign Secretary appears to be taking advice on human rights from the President of Uganda on behalf of the African Union, because Uganda’s human rights record is, to say the least, questionable. Does the Foreign Secretary not acknowledge that we are now involved in a civil war? Anyone listening to his statement from outside will have recognised that Britain is supporting the insurgent forces in Libya.

Is there any endgame? Does the Foreign Secretary intend to send in ground forces? Does he intend to arm the insurgent forces? It seems to me that we are being increasingly sucked into a conflict with no obvious end in sight other than a great deal of bloodshed. Can the Foreign Secretary say something more about diplomatic efforts to bring about an internal ceasefire and an internal settlement in Libya, rather than pouring in more and more arms and weapons?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I did not call President Museveni to ask for his advice on human rights. As I explained earlier, I called him to discuss the African Union’s attendance at the London conference. The hon. Gentleman must not place a different interpretation on what I said. In fact, I must correct what he has said in a couple of respects. He ended his question by saying that we were pouring more arms into Libya, but it follows from everything that I have said so far that we are not pouring more arms into Libya.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the end of all this. Let us remember that the purpose of resolution 1973 is to protect civilian life, which is what we have been achieving. Had we not passed that resolution and acted on it quickly, the loss of civilian life would have been dramatically greater, and the humanitarian crisis with which we would now be dealing would also be dramatically greater. Even at this stage, the achievement of those things in the last 11 days is something that people of all points of view should be able to welcome. Even the hon. Gentleman might say a word of welcome about the way in which people’s lives and human rights have been protected.

I too congratulate the Foreign Secretary. Being a bit more of an optimist than the shadow Foreign Secretary, I strongly welcome the vision of a democratic Libya published by the interim transitional national council. Does the Foreign Secretary welcome in particular its commitment to intellectual and political pluralism, the rights and empowerment of women and the rights of minorities, and what practical steps are we taking to build the ITNC’s capacity for democratic government?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in welcoming that statement. It includes other provisions as well as those he mentions, and the ITNC has given much time and serious thought to it. It is not a rushed document: ITNC members have debated it among themselves and prepared it carefully. I encouraged them to publish it yesterday because I think it showed, alongside the London conference, that it is the people of Libya who will lead and decide their own future. It is a very encouraging document in that regard. Our diplomatic contact with the ITNC, including the visit of our diplomats there on Monday and Tuesday of this week, has included looking at how we can support it in developing capacity for, and ideas about, securing democracy and a free society in the future. Developing such links will be a prime objective of the further missions we are now planning to Benghazi.

Why cannot the Government be clear about not rearming the insurgent groups in Libya now that the NATO commander has testified to the US Senate that he cannot rule out infiltration by al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups? As an historian, the Foreign Secretary knows that in the 1980s another ally—America—decided to arm Osama bin Laden to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and now British troops are dying on the mountains of Afghanistan because of that error. Don’t repeat it.

I shall put the hon. Gentleman down as being opposed to the arming of the rebels—but he must not get too excited about things that we have not done. Such questions of advisability are the very questions that would need to be assessed. As I have said, if we changed our policy on this we would say so to the House, and we would then be able to debate that. The hon. Gentleman is right that in history there are examples—more than the one example he gave—of weapons being given to people in good faith and then being used at a later stage for other purposes that their original owners had not desired. That is one of the considerations that have to be borne in mind.

May I urge the Foreign Secretary to resist the siren calls of the shadow Foreign Secretary about looking at the backgrounds and links of the people operating in Libya as insurgents? Otherwise we shall be accused of picking favourites. I urge my right hon. Friend to make every effort to continue both his encouragement for democracy strengthening and our sitting on the sidelines, while also being vigilant about the human rights of the civilians in Libya.

It is very important that it is the people of Libya who determine their own future. That is very clear, and my hon. Friend underlines the point. We are not trying to determine the future Government. It is clear that the ITNC has brought together a wide spread of groups and figures in the opposition and that they genuinely represent the opposition forces in Libya at present, but that is not to say that exactly that combination of people would turn out to be the future Government of a free Libya. As my hon. Friend says, we will not pick winners, but we will support an open process of political transition in Libya.

The Foreign Secretary presents quite an upbeat picture, but what assessment has he made of the Deputy Prime Minister’s observation that the current action could well result in the creation of a hostile Islamist Government in Libya?

It is very important that not only in Libya, but in north Africa as a whole, the UK and the European Union take the bold and ambitious approach that I described earlier, in order to act as a magnet for positive change—for civil society, open political systems, the building up of small and medium-sized enterprises, and all the other building blocks of democracy—but we cannot guarantee the outcome, of course. That is why we must make sure Europe provides a very big and effective magnet for those changes. If we fail to do that, not just Libya but any of the other countries in the region could become breeding grounds for terrorism and extremism. I think we should be on the optimistic side of this situation in which millions of people are seeking greater freedom, openness and democracy, but we should also be alert to the dangers if they do not succeed in getting those things.

I strongly agree with the shadow Foreign Secretary and his measured words, and urge extreme caution on my right hon. Friend. Would it not be a double win for al-Qaeda, and would we not start losing support in the Arab world, if we were seen to impose a solution on Libya and at the same time give arms to people who could prove to be Islamist insurgents in the future?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not be engaged in imposing any solution on Libya. We will carry out necessary operations to implement the UN Security Council resolutions, but we are not in the business of imposing a solution, or a Government, on Libya. Indeed, if we were, we would lose that wider Arab and regional support, of whose importance he rightly reminds us.

Everyone would like to see the end of Gaddafi and his regime; that is not in question. It is a murderous regime, and has been for 42 years; that is not in doubt. However, has the Foreign Secretary noticed that there have been more critical voices today than at any time since the situation in Libya started? There are such critical voices both here and on the international scene because, despite what the Foreign Secretary has been telling us, there is a growing impression that the coalition forces are, in fact, involved in regime change, which is totally outside the terms of the resolution—and, indeed, outside international law.

I would defy the hon. Gentleman to find any action taken by the coalition that is not in line with the UN Security Council resolutions. Everything we have done is in line with those resolutions. That was endorsed by everybody at the conference yesterday, and that will remain the case. The extreme care being taken to avoid civilian casualties is very clear, and a great contrast to the behaviour of the Gaddafi regime. It is important that we constantly underline these points in order to get that message across to the wider world, as well as in our own country, and the Government will continue to do so.

In the light of reports that rape is being used as a weapon of war by Gaddafi’s forces, and the appalling recent incident of the arrest of a rape victim who dared to speak out, can the Foreign Secretary give us more information on the aspect of the political programme announced by the ITNC addressing how the voices of Libyan women will be heard and how they will be active participants, given that UN Security Council resolutions 1325 and 1880 make it very clear that involving both men and women is essential for successful post-conflict peace building?

My hon. Friend draws attention to one very well-publicised case of recent days that has shocked the whole world, and there are reports that such treatment of women by the Gaddafi regime is much more widespread. That is another indication of the regime’s absolute disregard for, and lack of any understanding of, human rights. As our hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) pointed out earlier, it is a good sign that a commitment to women’s rights and the involvement of women is in the ITNC’s vision for a democratic Libya. That is in a culture and a country that does not have a strong tradition of women in leadership roles, but let us hope that it will be a characteristic of a future freer Libya.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House so promptly and giving such a full account of events at the London conference, as he promised he would. A growing impression is being given as a result of his and the Prime Minister’s comments today—and Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks yesterday—that we are edging our way towards arming the rebels in certain circumstances. What are those circumstances? Also, since the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have said that that would, in the Government’s view, be legal, presumably the Attorney-General has given a view on it. As far as many of us are concerned, either we must go back to the UN—I am sure the Foreign Secretary would not relish that prospect—and get a clarification of what has been called the dense text of the resolution or, at a minimum, the Attorney-General’s legal opinion on the circumstances in which we might arm the rebels should be sought and published.

The Government’s understanding of the legal position is the one that I have set out: it lies in the exact words that I used earlier. The Prime Minister used the same words, and I used similar words on the television last night. That understanding is, of course, based on the Attorney-General’s views. As an experienced Member and former Minister, the hon. Gentleman knows the position on Government publication of the legal advice, although he also knows that we have been more forthcoming about that than has sometimes been the case in the past. The advice that I have given to the House—the statement of the Government’s position—is very much based on the legal advice and can be taken as the Government’s definitive view on the matter.

Will the Foreign Secretary note that I am glad to hear that the Government have moved somewhat since my exchanges with the Prime Minister a week last Friday, when resolution 1973 was published? May I also say that we cannot have it both ways, and that the Sanctions Committee is also involved in this? Have any suggestions been made to approach it with a view to ensuring that what is done is legally done, in accordance with the best legal advice?

As my hon. Friend will understand, we are not proposing, at this point, to change our policy on this. If we did so, we would want to be absolutely satisfied that that was not only advisable but legal. We would need to be sure of that and able to assure the House of it, so I will bear his advice in mind.

During the debate in this House on Monday of last week, Members on both sides expressed their concern about mission creep. That concern has been heightened by today’s debate on potentially arming the rebels. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if the impression is given that NATO-led forces are taking sides in what is becoming a civil war, that will be deeply counter-productive to the cause of a lasting peace?

I will put that in a slightly different way, which is that it is very important to stick to the UN resolution. I think that that is at the heart of what the hon. Lady is saying, and it is very strongly the view of the Government. Although NATO is providing the command and control, it is clear that Arab nations are also taking part in this operation and many others support it. After all, the whole of the Arab League, with only one dissenting voice, called for a no-fly zone and the protection of civilian areas in Libya. As I assured the House earlier, we will always act in a way that maintains that broad international support. We are certainly not engaged in any mission creep. We are engaged in the protection of civilian areas, the enforcement of a no-fly zone, the delivery of humanitarian aid and the enforcement of an arms embargo. That is what we set out to do, and that is what we are continuing to do.

The Foreign Secretary talked about the British diplomatic mission to Benghazi. Does he agree that Britain can play a leading role there in building necessary links and thinking through issues associated with a post-conflict democratic settlement?

Yes, we absolutely can. We have diplomats and development advisers who are very well placed to do that. As I have mentioned before, doing that across the whole of north Africa in a way that is not patronising to the countries involved but which brings genuine expertise in the building of civil society and political pluralism is an important part of our role.

My colleagues and I fully support resolution 1973, but the reinterpretation of it in respect of arms to the rebels does suggest mission creep and is in danger of shattering the political consensus. It has been suggested in some quarters that the rebels have also asked for British troops to help with training. Can the Foreign Secretary give us a cast-iron assurance that there will be no British troops on the ground in Libya in any circumstances?

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman somewhat on that point. He knows that the UN resolution is clear that there must be no occupying force in Libya or any part of Libya. Let me give him further reassurance: in my meetings with the interim transitional national council, the opposition in Libya, they have not asked for our troops to go to train them, and we are not doing that at the moment. For the reasons that I gave in the House last week, I will not exclude our ever having any forces of any kind anywhere, in small numbers, on Libyan soil, because we have already had to do that: in order to rescue our nationals from the desert a month ago, we had to send the RAF and special forces into desert locations. Circumstances can arise in which such limited operations have to take place, but there will be no ground invasion of Libya and no occupation of Libya, and the request to which the hon. Gentleman refers certainly has not been made to me.

At this important and successful conference what discussions took place about the situation in Yemen? As the Foreign Secretary knows, Libya has 6 million people whereas Yemen has 23 million people, and a state of emergency was declared there last week. When he last came to the Dispatch Box he promised to continue the dialogue with Yemen’s president and people. Is there not a role for the international community to play to ensure that that continues?

Yes. Yemen was not the subject of yesterday’s conference, although, as the right hon. Gentleman can imagine, it was the subject of some of our discussions in the margins. Certainly Secretary of State Clinton and I discussed Yemen, among other subjects, in the morning. We continue to look to the various parties in Yemen to settle their differences peacefully. We do not want to see civil conflict in Yemen or the collapse of all authority in Yemen, which really would raise the much greater spectre of a terrorist threat to the United Kingdom on a vastly greater scale than anything we have discussed in the House so far this afternoon. The British Government are heavily engaged in this situation and our ambassador in Sana’a, in particular, is doing an outstanding job in giving very good advice and conveying all the views of this country to the President and to the other various factions involved in Yemen. So we are doing our best to use our good offices to bring about a more peaceful situation there.

May I commend the work that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done on Libya and the London conference? May I also commend the work of our armed forces, whose skill and expertise has meant that there has not been a single case of civilian injury, which is incredible? Can he confirm that we may use our armed forces to deliver humanitarian aid to Libya—if we are not already doing so—and thus make sure that we are supporting civilians as much as possible?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have not, so far, been using our armed forces to deliver humanitarian aid, although contingency planning done by various nations includes the ability to do that. However, it is better, if at all possible, to deliver humanitarian aid in a way that does not get that aid involved in the conflict that is going on in Libya. So we are trying to get that aid in by supporting other organisations and by some direct deliveries from our allies. As the Secretary of State for International Development made clear at his Department’s Question Time, that has enabled us to provide essential supplies for a very large number of people already.

What assessment have the Government made of the risk of civilian casualties if the insurgent forces were to get to Tripoli and start fighting, street by street, for control of the capital? What likelihood is there that the political track would create some kind of solution and a ceasefire before that situation arose?

Obviously, what we are hoping for and looking for is a genuine ceasefire—that is what the whole world wants to see. If the Gaddafi regime would accept that on the terms that I was discussing earlier with the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander)—it should not be difficult to do that—we would have a ceasefire and everybody would be able to proceed from there. All I can say about the opposition forces and the danger of civilian deaths from their activities is that, so far, we have no record of their being engaged in attacks on civilians. For one thing, they have not made frontal attacks on civilian areas and, for another, where they have managed to gain territory they have generally been welcomed by the local people. It is certainly part of the beliefs of the opposition that in most of the western towns and cities of Libya there would be a very strong welcome for the opposition forces. So they have avoided civilian casualties in their own operations so far, and we look to them to continue to do so.

I appreciate that my right hon. Friend might need to be careful with his answer to this question. Given the news from Misrata of further attacks on civilians, can he give an estimate of the munitions supplies and military capability that remain available to Gaddafi and of the effectiveness of the blockade of munitions from land and sea and by air?

I will have to be a bit careful with my answer. Clearly, events such as the attack by coalition aircraft on a major ammunition storage depot in the early hours of Monday will have made a difference to the ammunition supplies of the Libyan regime. It is very difficult to quantify that, but it will have made a significant difference. Equally, the successful attacks on regime vessels that were seeking to blockade Misrata yesterday will have made a significant difference to their ability to blockade that city. It is not possible to put a precise statistical estimate on the things my hon. Friend is asking for, but one can say with a fair degree of confidence that, if it had not been for coalition activity, the citizens of Misrata would by now have sustained many, many more casualties. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the city would have been taken over by regime forces, with desperate consequences for many of its inhabitants.

The Foreign Secretary says that coalition and British forces should follow the letter of the UN resolution, and indeed the resolution of the House, but are they doing so? Reports coming out of Libya suggest that we are supporting offensive actions by the rebels, and there are mixed messages about regime change, including from the Government Front Bench. Does he accept that there will be a breakdown in the broad consensus either in the UN or in this House if there is not clear evidence that only humanitarian and protective ambitions are being achieved?

No, I do not accept any of the premises of the hon. Gentleman’s question. What we have just seen at the London conference is a serious broadening and deepening of support for what we are doing under the United Nations resolution and I have stressed the importance of maintaining that. He can be sure that British forces and our allies are acting entirely within the UN resolution and I am not aware of anyone who is able to bring to the House any evidence that they are doing anything other than that. He would do well to support our forces in the difficult job they are undertaking rather than to entertain the idea that they are doing something different.

Although there is widespread agreement that Gaddafi has lost all legitimacy, it is increasingly unlikely that he will step down voluntarily. Apart from the no-fly zone, what does the coalition force propose to bring an absolute end to the conflict?

I must be clear with my hon. Friend, as I have been with other hon. Members, that our military mission is defined by the United Nations resolution. As one or two Members have pointed out, neither the mission nor the resolution includes regime change. Yes, we think Gaddafi should go, as does any rational person on earth—it is impossible to see a viable future for his country while he remains there—but in our military activity we will stick absolutely to what is laid out in the UN resolution.

I note that the Foreign Secretary has not told us how much of the Gaddafi hardware now being targeted by coalition forces was provided by those countries in the first place. He also knows that in the debate of 21 March the Government clearly resiled from calls to arm the rebels and offered assurances regarding regime change and questions about the future governance of Libya. They also told us that there was international consensus on a clear and focused interpretation. Does he agree that those interpretations have been moving and varied since then, and is not the spin shift of the past 10 days evidence that the Government and the coalition are struggling to defy gravity and are being sucked into mission creep?

No, that is entirely wrong. I wish the hon. Gentleman could have come along to the conference yesterday. If he had, he would have seen the degree of international support—indeed, unanimity—for these things, which is quite extraordinary for an international event involving such a varied group of nations from both sides of the Atlantic and around the middle east. That international consensus has been strengthened, the international focus on the UN resolution is as strong as it was at the beginning and our commitment to operate within it is as strong as it was at the beginning, so we are not engaging in any mission creep.

First, may I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the way in which he has handled the overall situation? Will he clarify one point about the UN resolution’s mention of protecting civilians under attack in Libya, “including Benghazi”? Why expressly mention Benghazi and not Misrata or Zawiya?

That is a fair question. The mention of Benghazi is a product of the days in which the UN resolution was drafted and agreed at the UN Security Council, when the most specific threat to the largest number of people was to the civilian population of Benghazi. My hon. Friend will remember that at that time the Gaddafi forces were advancing rapidly on it, so when the resolution was agreed it was easy to put Benghazi in it. As he knows from reading that paragraph, its provisions apply to all the other civilian-populated areas of Libya; the inclusion of Benghazi was not meant to exclude any other areas.

May I press the Foreign Secretary to say something more about the contact group, specifically the size, frequency of meetings and the ministerial level at which those meetings will take place?

The membership of the group will be decided in the coming days. Clearly, as Qatar is hosting the next meeting and we will co-chair it, we will work closely with the Qataris on the membership of the contact group, which will need to be internationally agreed. It should certainly include international organisations such as the Arab League, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, the EU High Representative and the African Union if they want to be associated with it, and it also needs to include key nations from both sides of the Atlantic and from the middle east and north Africa region. It will need to include at least a dozen nations—perhaps a few more—to be of a size that can be cohesive and able to work together. I envisage it meeting for the first time within the next two weeks, certainly. We will be represented at senior ministerial level, which means by me or the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), if I have duties elsewhere. I think it will be a very useful and important group for the high-level political oversight of the whole work of the coalition.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his mojo on Libya. Given what my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) have said about the terrible treatment of civilians in Libya and about the prisons and torture there, did my right hon. Friend have any discussions yesterday with the other countries about bringing to justice those who are perpetrating war crimes, particularly about ensuring that Gaddafi is not allowed to go into exile but is brought before the International Criminal Court?

We have had those discussions all along. As my hon. Friend knows, there is a reference to the prosecutor of the ICC in resolution 1970—the first of the two resolutions passed on these matters. Just as we remain strongly attached to the implementation of resolution 1973, we are also firmly committed to the implementation of resolution 1970 and we want people to know that we are not going to be advocates of impunity for those crimes.

May I pay tribute to the work that our servicemen and women—the RAF and the Navy—are doing once again on our behalf and the way in which they are carrying out those operations, minimising civilian casualties? We endorse the careful and cautious approach of the Foreign Secretary and the Government because of the concerns about al-Qaeda. Will the Foreign Secretary address the issue that was raised earlier about the role of fighters from eastern Libya in Afghanistan and elsewhere? What knowledge can he bring to the House about that and the role of al-Qaeda links in Libya today?

I am grateful, as the whole House will be, for the reaffirmation from all sides of support for the work of our armed forces. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to refer to that, but I cannot give him specific information about people in eastern Libya fighting in Afghanistan. As he knows, there are fighters in Afghanistan on the Taliban side drawn from a wide area around the world, but it would not be accurate to represent the eastern part of Libya as a major factor in that or a major area for the recruitment of such people. As I say, it would be most accurate to place the accent on the positive and democratic side of the opposition in Libya rather than on any other side.

May I strongly and respectfully disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)? The UN resolution is not some law that has passed through a Bill Committee of the House of Commons; it is a contract between us, Germany, Brazil and India. We should be very, very careful not to push the letter of the law, but to stick to the spirit of that resolution. If anyone is to arm the rebels, may I respectfully suggest that Britain should not be in the lead?

My hon. Friend makes some powerful points. He is right that in looking at a UN resolution one must bear in mind not only the precise words with which it was drafted but the circumstances in which it was agreed and any understanding at the time, and we shall certainly do so.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. It is clear from television pictures that a humanitarian catastrophe is waiting to happen—no water, no electricity, no food, medical supplies dwindling, and those who have been injured, shot or blown up by other forces queuing up at the hospital. What steps has the right hon. Gentleman taken to ensure that technical support is given to civilians in Libya so that they can resume some normality in their lives?

We are giving a lot of support. We are giving financial support to organisations that are involved in supplying such aid. We have provided a specific amount of supplies for up to 100,000 people, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development indicated earlier. We have other projects under way to support the bringing of direct help to some of the people in the most desperate situations. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot announce in advance what they are in case the Gaddafi regime tries to prevent them, but he can be assured that we are giving a lot of attention to the issue.

I, too, warmly welcome the news that there have been no civilian casualties so far as a result of the action that we have taken, which is a testament to the skill and delicacy of our pilots. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the closer the fighting gets to the urban centres in the west of Libya, particularly around Tripoli, the harder it will be to avoid civilian casualties as a result of fighting on the ground and from the air.

I urge the Foreign Secretary to hold robust conversations with the Arab League and other regional players to ensure that we know where the tipping point is between air action to support civilians and air action in support of offensive ground action by the rebels, because it is a grey area—

We are extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but we have a lot of business today. I call the Foreign Secretary.

To give a brief answer to conclude, the best way to put it to my hon. Friend is as follows. We retain the moral and international standing, particularly because of the extreme care that we take to minimise—to avoid—civilian casualties. That must continue throughout the operation. The purpose of the operation is to protect civilians. It cannot be part of its purpose to inflict damage or death on civilians, so whatever the situation, however it develops over the coming days or weeks, we will continue to take that extreme care.