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Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 February 1999

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7.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Kosovo which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Statement is as follows: "With permission I should like to make a Statement on the Kosovo talks. In my Statement three weeks ago I reported that the Contact Group had agreed to summon both sides to negotiations for a political settlement on the basis of the documents tabled by the Contact Group.

"Both sides responded to that summons and took part in peace talks held until yesterday at Rambouillet. As co-chair of the talks, the United Kingdom was fully engaged in brokering agreement between the two parties, and the House will wish to recognise the immense effort put in by officials, some of whom have worked without break and occasionally without sleep. I would record the appreciation of all the British team for the close co-operation of France, both as co-chair and host of the talks.

"At the outset both parties to the talks had a large number of reservations to the Contact Group proposals for the constitution of a self-governing Kosovo. The majority of them were resolved. But the Yugoslav delegation still have some difficulties, such as the limited role of the Serbian courts. The Albanian side are still particularly concerned by the absence of a commitment to a referendum on independence at the end of the three-year period.

"These problems remain, but nevertheless we obtained consensus from both sides to a democratic, self-governing Kosovo, and agreement to the main elements in the detailed texts on its constitution. These texts provide for Kosovo its own assembly, constitution, president, government, taxes, laws, and police and security. They provide a sweeping measure of autonomy for Kosovo, including the right to conduct foreign relations in respect of the areas within the competence of the Kosovar Assembly. The constitution also provides full protection for the national communities within Kosovo, including the right of both Serb and Albanian communities to representative bodies to protect and promote their respective language, culture, religion and educational curriculum.

"There was broad agreement on both sides to a major international presence in support of the political settlement. Elections to the assembly, local communes, and community bodies are to be supervised by the OSCE. Both parties agreed to the appointment of an international ombudsman to monitor human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the texts provide for the European Commission to take the lead role in co-ordinating the economic reconstruction of Kosovo.

"The most difficult issue of all was the proposal for an international military presence in Kosovo. The Yugoslav delegation refused to accept that the presence of foreign troops was consistent with their national sovereignty. There were also serious difficulties on the Albanian side, among whom the representatives of the Kosovo Liberation Army found it hard to accept that a condition of an international military force was that they must demilitarise and surrender their weapons.

"Throughout the talks I made clear the willingness of Britain to provide ground troops to underpin the interim settlement, but that there could be no question of us or our allies doing so without a clear commitment to such a ceasefire and to the withdrawal or disarmament on both sides necessary to make it a reality. Both parties agreed to meet again on 15th March to discuss all aspects of the implementation of the new constitution of Kosovo, including the civilian and military international presence.

"My colleague Hubert Vedrine and I are considering how we can best use the interval between now and then to convince the wider public in Kosovo and Serbia that the outcome is a good bargain for both, and the best deal they will have to end the conflict.

"I regret to inform the House that violent conflict continues in Kosovo. On Monday there was fighting near Vucitrn. Yesterday there was further fighting at Bukos, in which we know that at least one Serb was killed and five injured. We do not yet have figures for casualties on the Albanian side. Today there have been further exchanges of fire near Suva Reka.

"Last night Javier Solana confirmed that NATO expects both sides to respect the ceasefire and remains ready to use whatever means are necessary in support of it. Yesterday all the NATO members of the Contact Group repeated their support for decisive NATO action if Belgrade makes a disproportionate response or takes violent reprisals against the civilian population. We also hold the Kosovo Liberation Army responsible for its part in maintaining a ceasefire. Both sides should use the next three weeks to build on the new agreement for peace, not to break down the existing agreement for a ceasefire.

"When I spoke to the House last on this issue, I ended by saying that I could not confirm that the talks which we were seeking would take place, nor guarantee that they would succeed. We were successful in getting both sides to take part in the talks. As a result, we have created a peace process, and the end of the Rambouillet talks is not the end of that process, but only the conclusion of its first phase. Both sides have committed themselves to taking part in its next phase.

"I cannot report to the House that we have yet reached complete agreement to the Contact Group texts, but we have secured agreement to the overwhelming majority of them. That result proves that we were right to try for peace by summoning these talks. But it also demonstrates the extra mile we still have to travel. I can assure the House that we will maintain our pressure on both sides to end the conflict through negotiations.

"Neither side is going to end this conflict through military action. Neither side can gain from prolonging it. The longer Belgrade continues to try to resolve the conflict by military repression, the more difficult it makes any final outcome that stops short of independence for Kosovo. And the longer the Kosovo Liberation Army continues to provoke repression, the more difficult it makes it for the international community to stop the bloodshed among its people.

"Both sides have recognised the value of the Contact Group proposals. I urge them now to work with us in implementing those proposals and to turn their commitments on paper into reality on the ground; the reality of a Kosovo free from fear and governed by free elections".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

7.26 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and for the details that she has given to your Lordships' House of the partial political agreement that has been reached as a result of the Rambouillet talks. From the outset, I should like to take this opportunity to reiterate the support of these Benches for the Government both in their active efforts to seek a political solution to the ongoing crisis in Kosovo under the auspices of the Contact Group, and in their preparations for the anticipated deployment of the British contingent of peacekeeping troops.

I should also like to assure the Minister that we appreciate the complexity and the difficulty of the issues under negotiation. We welcome the news that Belgrade has moved towards a substantial degree of autonomy for a democratic Kosovo, with its own assembly, courts and police and with safeguards for the protection of human rights and members of national communities. However, given the partial nature of this provisional agreement and in the absence of a more substantial concession, I fear that the impression left by the Rambouillet talks remains one of a failure to bring forth anything more than the most meagre of fruits. What once was an event has now become a process.

I should like to ask the Minister how far these talks have in fact altered the status quo that was reached by the ceasefire deal agreed last October, when the noble Baroness told the House that a,
"central part of the Holbrooke package was the agreement by President Milosevic to a political framework to deliver self-government for Kosovo".—[Official Report, 19/10/98; col. 1202.]
Does the Minister accept that when neither party has signed the agreement and when one delegation's acceptance is conditional and the other's is partial, any attempt to claim major progress has all the ingredients of a face-saver? After a year of fighting, after a year of repeated threats of action by the international community as yet unfulfilled, after 17 days of intensive talks, it remains the case that, today, there is still no peace in Kosovo; there is still no agreement on a peacekeeping force; and there is only a half-hearted conditional commitment from both parties to a future political structure for the province.

Does the Minister accept that the three-week period until both sides reconvene on 15th March to work on the implementation of the deal simply represents a postponement of the most intractable issues? Does the Minister further accept that the failure to reach a comprehensive agreement and the subsequent three-week delay may well provide hard-liners on both sides with the opportunity to entrench their obdurate positions yet further?

The Foreign Secretary has said that the next three weeks will be used to,
"seek to convince both the Serbs and the Albanians that the texts that have been discussed and agreed to provide a good bargain for both sides".
Can the Minister elaborate on how that will he done and whether the Foreign Secretary or any other Contact Group Minister will be travelling to Belgrade during that period?

Assessing the Serb perspective, what prospect does the Minister see for Serb agreement in March to the deployment of the proposed 30,000 strong NATO-led peacekeeping force, given the failure to reach agreement on that to date, and given the US Secretary of State's belief that the Serbs must bear the lion's share of responsibility for that, since they did not "engage at all" on this question during the Rambouillet talks?

Will the Minister confirm that it is the Government's position that the political agreement will not work without an international military presence to ensure stability in the province? Will she further confirm that the presence of a NATO-led peacekeeping force is non-negotiable, that such a force must be NATO led and NATO commanded, and that without agreement from the Serbs to such a military presence there can be no deal?

Is the Minister in a position to enlarge on the Foreign Secretary's comments that,
"if other countries want to take part [in such a force] we would welcome that and would explore how they could take part"?
Will the Minister confirm that the threat of NATO action remains a very real one if the Kosovar Albanians agree to the deal while the Serbs do not? Will she give an assurance that President Milosevic should not be lulled into a false sense of security by perceptions that NATO is once again crying wolf?

Does the Minister accept the growing concern that the often repeated threat of NATO air strikes against Serbia is ringing increasingly hollow, and that once the linkage between diplomacy and the threat of the use of force is made, that linkage must be credible, or else the international community risks undermining its authority? Although any such NATO action is presently hamstrung by Kosovo procrastination, it remains the case that while President Milosevic continues to flout the will of the international community and the result is a three-week consultation period instead of the promised air strikes, it will only serve to encourage him in his defiance.

On that note, is the Minister in a position to confirm Major-General Drewienkiewicz's reported warnings that the Kosovo Verification Mission has received direct indications from the Serbian authorities that they are preparing to launch a major offensive of 50,000 soldiers in Kosovo, in the event of further delay by the Kosovo delegation? And, of very considerable importance, can the Minister outline the Russian contribution to the Rambouillet talks, and can she say what action, if any, the Russian Government have indicated they will take to prevent NATO air strikes against Serbia?

From the Kosovo Albanian perspective, what expectations does the Minister have that the Kosovo Albanians will agree to a deal which does not contain the right to a binding referendum on independence at the end of the three-year interim period, particularly in the light of KLA veteran Adem Demaci's statement that the Rambouillet talks could not bring peace, that KLA disarmament was "out of the question" and that the struggle would continue?

What action will the Government take, together with their Contact Group partners, if the consultations which will take place in Kosovo over the next three weeks lead to a rejection of the deal? In that event, will the Government seek international support to cut off the supply lines to the KLA?

We offer the Government our support for the negotiations when the talks are reconvened in March; but, without doubt, there will be, and should be, reflection on the fact that during the next three weeks the ceasefire will continue to be breached in Kosovo on a daily basis as the fighting grows ever more intense with the onset of spring and more refugees will he forced to leave their homes to add to the 9,000 which the UNHCR estimates have fled in the past few days, while, regrettably, the prospect of a lasting and comprehensive settlement for peace remains as elusive as ever.

7.35 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I do not wholly accept the harsh strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. I believe that he underestimates the extraordinary difficulty of the problems that have arisen time and again as the former Yugoslavia gradually disintegrates. Perhaps there is no more appropriate quotation than that from the famous social scientist, Max Weber, that politics is like the boring of hard boards. No harder boards exist than the position of the government of the former republic of Yugoslavia. That said, some of the problems that the Contact Group faced in the most recent discussions over Kosovo had their origins in the inadequate, and certainly inadequately spelt out, conditions of the original Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement, which among other things left very unclear just what was the position of the Yugoslav army or the Serbian police within the province of Kosovo.

I wish briefly to ask the Minister a few questions. First, will she confirm that the situation reached in the recent discussions at Rambouillet took the position with regard to the autonomous government of Kosovo further than it was in 1989, when it was breached by President Milosevic? In other words, will she confirm that advances were made in respect of the spelling out of what is meant by autonomy for Kosovo?

Will she also confirm that the Contact Group was placed in an extremely difficult position by the unwillingness of the Albanian Kosovan delegation to take any single united position; and that the willingness of some in that delegation, in particular those with an elected situation, to proceed to some kind of compromise agreement was much greater than those who happened to lead the Kosovo Liberation Army?

In regard to the discussions that are to take place in the next three weeks, can the Minister tell us what, if anything, the position of the Kosovo Verification Mission is likely to be? Will it continue to stay in the province, or will it be pulled out? Does the Minister believe that there is any future for a civilian mission in the event that there is no decision to agree to the presence of NATO troops, as seems all too probable, on the part of the government of the former republic of Yugoslavia? Finally, will the Minister tell the House whether in any proceedings in an attempt to reach a compromise agreement there will be an attempt to spell out the precise position of the Serbian police and of the army of the former republic of Yugoslavia in much more detail than was ever achieved in the former talks with Milosevic which, I repeat, was one of the problems faced by the Contact Group in the recent negotiations?

7.38 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for their general support. I think that I can say that. Although the noble Lord placed a number of strictures upon the agreement, I thought that he was nonetheless supportive of the Government's position.

It is no secret that this is a partial agreement. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that in making his Statement in another place my right honourable friend was very clear that more had been achieved in these talks than he had thought possible when they began. I believe that was clear in the previous Statement that I repeated, in which he indicated that he was not even sure that the relevant parties would go to Rambouillet for the discussions in the first place.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is right in stressing the complexities that there have been in these discussions. They are enormously complex and difficult. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was somewhat shortsighted in the view that he took about Belgrade's position on Kosovo autonomy. The Statement which I repeated on behalf of my right honourable friend spelt out in some detail the areas of autonomy in respect not only of the constitution but also of the president, the government, taxes, police, security and conducting foreign relations in respect of the areas within the competence of the Kosovar assembly. That is a substantial step forward and that view is taken not only by my right honourable friend but also by the EU foreign ministers to whom he reported earlier this week.

The noble Lord is right. It has been enormously difficult. I have made Statements to your Lordships since autumn last year about the difficulties we were running into on the political track under the stewardship of Ambassador Hill.

The noble Lord asked whether the next few weeks were not just an opportunity to put off some dreadful decisions. I do not believe that is so. I think this is genuinely a time for consultation. One of the reasons it is so important is not only on the Serb side but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, it is about complexities on the Kosovar side. We are not just dealing with the KLA but with a complex number of groupings and individuals on the Kosovar side who have indicated that they need extra time to talk and consult about what they were being asked to sign up to. If it takes the extra three weeks to secure an agreement, I believe we will all feel it was time well spent.

Of course, there have been disappointments. However, I do not think it is fair to say that the discussions have been in any sense a failure. They have not been ideal, nor have they been perfect. But they are considerably better than no agreement at all. I thought that the noble Baroness showed a firm and sensible grasp of the realities of international negotiations.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked: "What if the Serbs continue to refuse a NATO ground force?" The Serbs have agreed to discuss the scope and character of an international presence in Kosovo to implement the agreement. That is the crucial point. It is an international grouping to implement the agreement. The Serbs are well aware that they will be held responsible if they block agreement on 15th March.

The noble Lord asked about the position vis-à-vis Russian troops. Russia is a full member of the contact group. The Russian negotiator played a key role at Rambouillet, alongside the EU negotiators and US negotiators. Russia supports the ground force deployment, to underpin a political settlement in Kosovo, so long as it is agreed with the Serbs. Partly for domestic political reasons, of which I am sure we are aware, they find it difficult to accept a purely NATO force. But they have agreed that if the Serbs agree, they want to take part in that ground force.

The noble Lord also asked me to reflect on what triggers there might be for NATO action. The NATO strategy is to halt the violence and support the completion of the negotiations on this interim political settlement and to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, described to us. Steps to that end should, in our view, involve the completion of the negotiations within the specified timescale. They should involve immediate observance of the cease-fire by the FRY authorities and also of their commitments, including the reduction to agreed levels of forces. There must also be an end to the excessive and disproportionate use of force.

I was asked about other countries which might join some kind of ground force. Several allies have announced that they would be willing to use forces: France, around 5,000; Germany, over 5,000; the United States, nearly 4,000; Canada, between 500 and 800. Italy and some smaller allies have also agreed to contribute. That is important because, although it is the United Kingdom which suggested that we put in 8,000 to 9,000 personnel, we are heavily supported in it by our allies, should the ground force go in.

The key message is that we must keep up the pressure on both sides to accept all aspects of the agreement and to take concrete steps to prepare for implementation.

To answer the specific point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, we are clear that NATO will not lower its guard. Her Majesty's Government are urging both sides to use restraint in the next three weeks, to refrain from provocative acts and to use this time constructively for the consultation which they have both said they need.

7.45 p.m.

My Lords, if my confidence in the Government needed bolstering, it would have received support from what has taken place this evening. We heard a Statement from the Government which indicated an outcome—though not a final outcome—which most of us can regard as something which we hoped against hope would be achieved. However, we had no confidence that it would. It is not a final result, but when one heard the Opposition response to the Statement, one could only thank goodness that the control of the British contribution was not in their hands on this occasion or by now we would have been launched into a full-scale war. Under those circumstances, my support of the Government is reinforced. I was glad to hear in similar terms from the Liberal Benches.

The Opposition raised the question of air attacks. Is it not the case that air attacks have no part in the situation? They can only achieve a contrary result. Is it not the case, therefore, that if there were ever a situation in which one had to use the methods of peace and possibly peace reinforcement after the event—which one hopes will be the outcome—there is no place for air attacks. Let us hope we shall hear no more about that.

I congratulate the Government on their partial success so far, and not only the Government but all concerned in the discussions. I am grateful to those who participated from all sides. We are in a better position now than many of us thought we might be on this occasion.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Jenkins for his support. As he rightly indicated, this is not just something that has been achieved by Ministers—albeit partially successful—but, as I cannot overemphasise, on the part of officials who have worked tirelessly in order to try to achieve the agreement.

I must make a confession to noble Lords that I rather enjoy the rigorous questioning of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. He keeps us all on our toes on foreign affairs issues. The questions that he puts are tabled in the spirit of trying to ascertain that little bit more than the Government give in their Statements. I thought perhaps he could have been a little more generous, it is true, and I agree with my noble friend on the point; but I believe that the noble Lord was kind enough to indicate his broad support.

As for air strikes, I emphasise to my noble friend that he must not think that NATO is lowering its guard. I hope I made it clear that NATO will continue to watch the situation on the ground in Kosovo closely and will stand ready to act if either side provokes violent incidents or blocks the agreement. We all hope that that will not be the case and now we have the best chance of it not happening. I hope that we shall be able to go forward with an agreement on 15th March.

My Lords, without wishing to pre-empt the debate that will take place considerably later this evening, perhaps I may ask about the number of troops to be provided. Can the Minister explain why the vast majority of the troops appear to have been offered by Britain?

My Lords, yes, I can. The ground force that is envisaged will be about 30,000 strong. It is led by the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps under General Sir Michael Jackson. The UK contribution will be between 8,000 and 9,000 men. As I understand it, it is the UK that takes the lead in that Rapid Reaction Corps. It is for that reason that the UK has offered such a substantial number of troops.