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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:10 pm on 16th April 1986.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 8:10 pm, 16th April 1986

The nature of the Libyan regime is not in doubt. It is an obnoxious dictatorship and much involved in international terrorism. It is known—this has never been denied by the regime—that many of Gaddafi's opponents have been hunted down and murdered, including a number outside Libya. I do not believe, however, that the kind of action taken by the United States can be justified in any way. There is considerable doubt that such action can be justified under article 51 of the United Nations charter. The general view of the legal experts who have given their opinion in the past 24 hours is that such action cannot be justified under article 51. Whether that will cause President Reagan much anxiety, I do not know.

Despite what the Prime Minister said, it has been publicised and not denied that there has been considerable misgiving on the part of some members of the. Cabinet about the action taken by the United States and about the way in which the Americans were given permission to use British bases for their action. It was reported on the news this morning that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary and the chairman of the Conservative party had reservations about the action taken. In an interview recorded on Monday evening, the Secretary of State for Defence said that he was somewhat dubious, with his colleagues, about whether a military strike was the best way of dealing with the problem. If it is denied that he said this, so be it, but it was reported in today's newspapers that he had said it in a radio interview on Monday. He was quoted as saying: It is too liable to hit the wrong people, and it creates other tensions in the area. We have seen photographs in the press of how the wrong people have been hit in Libya.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said in the exchanges yesterday that one cannot fight terrorism with terrorism. I entirely agree. It is clear that a number of civilians, including children, have been killed in the raids, and others severely injured. If such casualties had occurred because of terrorist action, whether by the Libyan regime or anyone else—the IRA, for example—all of us would deplore such loss of innocent life. In my view and that of Opposition Members, we should equally deplore the loss of life which has occurred as a result of the bombing raids. The innocent have been hit, young and old alike. I accept that effective international action needs to be taken against terrorism, but what has happened this week is hardly likely to reduce terrorist acts.

Neither my right hon. and hon. Friends nor I wish to condone the kind of terrorism which has occurred in the past few years, causing such loss of life and such obvious disquiet, whether in the middle east or elsewhere. I agree, however, with those who have argued that the action taken by the United States could possibly strengthen Gaddafi's regime. The Arab states, with scarcely an exception, condemn the American action. It is not just the Governments of those countries in the middle east; large numbers of people in the Arab world may well tend to the view that Libya has been bombed simply because it has stood up to the United States.

That is the problem, as I see it. One of the by-products of the American action is that if Gaddafi survives it may make him into a kind of hero or martyr on the international Arab scene. That would be most undesirable.

Before they criticised the United States, many of my hon. Friends and a number of hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches said that they were in no way anti-American. The same goes for me. I do not consider myself anti-American because I have criticised successive American Administrations, any more than I consider myself anti-British because I happen to criticise the present Administration or anti-Soviet because I strongly disagree with certain aspects of Soviet policy. So it is absolute nonsense to say that one is anti-American. Are those Americans who so vocally demonstrated against the Vietnam war 20 years ago to be regarded as anti-American?

Nevertheless, I share the understandable anxiety in this country about the attitude of the United States to its foreign opponents. People believe that President Reagan is far too quick on the draw. It is important to remember that the United States has made some very bad mistakes in foreign policy in recent years. I wonder how many Conservative Members would now wish to defend American action in Vietnam. It would be interesting to know. I was a Member when that war was taking place. I was one of the vocal critics of my own Government who were supporting President Johnson. I understand that tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, when President Kennedy tried to destroy the Castro regime in 1961. I wonder how many Americans or even hon. Members on the Government Benches would wish to justify that bit of crazy nonsense.

I doubt that anyone would really wish to deny that terrorism occurs under the Gaddafi regime, and that sort of terrorism is to be condemned; but it has already been pointed out that the sort of action taken by the United States Government against foreign opponents, including the attempt to topple an elected Government in Nicaragua, is to be condemned. What about the way in which the Contras have been supplied with money and arms, the way in which the United States President is trying his very best to obtain more such funding from Congress? Is that not also a form of terrorism? Should that not be condemned? If Western leaders are to speak out against terrorism, it is important that they are able to do so with clean hands.

I have a great deal of sympathy with one matter which has been mentioned today, the Palestinian question. I do not take the view that if somehow the Arab-Israeli conflict were to be resolved there would be lasting peace in the middle east. There are other conflicts in the middle east, including a long-drawn-out war between Iraq and Iran which has very little to do with the Arab-Israeli conduct. But, like the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), although I too support the state of Israel, I am critical of its actions in the past few years, be it in Lebanon or on the occupied West bank. The Western powers must act to persuade Israel, in particular, of the need for a settlement of the Palestinian issue. I see no solution to that conflict until the Palestinians have a state, just as the Jews have a state in Israel. It is important to bear that in mind when considering the whole issue of the middle east and the way that terrorism has emerged not only from Libya but from the Lebanon and elsewhere. In many cases, it has arisen directly because of the Palestinian-Arab conflict.

We will be entirely justified when we vote against the Government tonight. We are concerned that the events of this week could be repeated. We must give a clear warning to the United States Administration that, although their action was approved and endorsed by the British Government, many people in Britain, and certainly the Opposition, are opposed to it. We would be right to reflect that in the Lobby tonight.