The Gulf

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:42 pm on 11th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas , Meirionnydd Nant Conwy 7:42 pm, 11th December 1990

I shall not follow the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) in detail except to ask him one question. Members of Opposition parties arguing for continuing with sanctions are asked by Conservative Members, "For how long?" The hon. Gentleman talked about a long-term war deployment in the Gulf, so we must ask him, "For how long?"

In a crisis it is vital that the political actors behave responsibly and rationally. We have had a fairly rational debate this evening, as we had in September. In taking practical decisions in the House and in government we need to adopt a thoughtful approach. Such an approach is more likely to be helpful than a fundamentalist response or a gut reaction. We need to keep cool heads and adopt a philosophical approach.

A crisis is also a matter of perception. Good diplomacy and effective action require an understanding of other people's perceptions without necessarily accepting them as valid. One perception that we need to correct is the tendency for Parliament to behave as though it were still in the 19th century—as though we were the main actors on the international scene. In fact, we are the fourth, fifth or even sixth players in the crisis. The first players are the peoples in the middle east: ordinary Kuwaiti and Iraqi citizens, who are dominated internally and externally; other dominated minorities in the region, including the Palestinians and the Kurds; the state of Israel; and the Arab states and the Arab nation.

The major centres of decision making in the crisis are in the United States—in the United Nations building in New York, in the White House and on Capitol hill in Washington, DC. Although the United Kingdom is not the main player, there seems far less of a wide-ranging debate here about the resolution of the Gulf crisis than there is in the United States. Congress has far more real democratic powers over the Executive than does this Parliament, and there is a culture of openness in United States politics which even extends to the military. What we can do this evening is lend our rational voices, as democratic representatives, to the debate taking place in other centres of decision making, particularly in the United States.

No one in this House, least of all members of my party, will ever say anything in defence of the Iraqi regime. We are on record as being severely critical of the human rights record of that regime, particularly in Kurdistan, and when I—together with other hon. Members—raised the issue of Hallabjah not much fuss was made at the time about the chemical warfare and genocide against the Kurdish people by the Ba'athist regime. There must be a reversal of the unjustified occupation of Kuwait and of the aggression by Iraq. This debate is about the most effective way of ensuring such a reversal, coupled with a review of security in the entire region.

The issue is not whether it is legitimate to use all necessary means after 15 January; what is at issue is the most effective means of resolving the crisis. The arguments for taking military action used by the United States Administration are conflicting and confusing. The move from desert shield to desert sword by the United States is not merely rhetorical. The scale of over-deployment early on led to the build-up of capability beyond that necessary to resist further aggression into Saudi Arabia. That led to demands not merely for repelling the Iraqi forces from Kuwait but for destroying the military capability of the Iraqi regime. No United Nations resolution provides a basis for that.

Arguments for early military action include such statements as, "The international coalition of states against Hussein cannot be sustained." But surely an all-out war with a high toll of Arab civilian casualties would test the unity of the allies far more than patient pressure over a longer time. The argument for military action concentrates on the fact that the United States deployment, along with that of the United Kingdom and of other allies, will be at its peak early next year, but that is a cyclical argument arising from the initial deployment decisions. If the hot weather in the desert after February is the argument for striking early after 15 January, are the military experts really saying that a war can be successfully concluded before the long hot desert weather? What kind of civilian casualties would be inflicted in an air strike-led counter invasion at that time?

Another argument is that an early strike would prevent Iraq from becoming a nuclear power. It is not so long since spokespeople for the Bush Administration were saying that Iraq's nuclear capability posed no immediate danger. Surely diplomacy leading to a binding nuclear non-proliferation and chemical weapons treaty is the only way in which nuclear capability can be scaled down, as has happened in Europe.

How can the undertaking of military action be seen to bring about more effectively the resolution of the longstanding political conflicts in the region? Whatever view we may take of so-called linkages, those linkages exist in the perception of millions in the Arab nation. They are the linkages of hypocrisy, and it is only through understanding them that we can assist in resolving the long-term crisis in the area.

Long-term deployment of United States troops supported by the United Kingdom and a dwindling band of allies, trying to maintain an imposed political solution against the increasing hostility of peoples in the region, cannot be regarded as an effective solution. There is no substitute for an internationally sponsored conference of all powers in the region—the middle east equivalent of the conference on security and co-operation in Europe, dealing with strict controls of arms exports to the region and with verification for scaling down nuclear, chemical and biological weapons facilities. It could also deal with the creation of a nuclear-free zone throughout the middle east, with thoroughly negotiated international agreements for an elected Palestinian Government, with measures to ensure the security of the pre-1967 Israeli borders, and with the withdrawal of forces from the Lebanon.

Such an international conference, convened by the United Nations, is predicated upon Iraq's complying with the Security Council resolutions. An effective economic blockade together with patient diplomacy is much more likely to bring about longer-term peace and security in the region than the taking of precipitate military action which would turn the whole middle east into a huge Beirut.

There has to be a better way to combat aggression and maintain international law and order at the end of the 20th century. This approach to the crisis, at once practical and philosophical, may not commend itself to some Conservative Members or perhaps to Front-Bench speakers. As United Kingdom Members of Parliament, we do not have the equivalent of the war power resolution of the United States Congress. We cannot decide these issues in the House, but we can indicate a note of caution by voting. We do that not because we are appalled by the aggression of the Ba'athist regime or because we have no concern for human rights and democracy in Kuwait or anywhere else in the middle east, but because we believe that the balance of the argument favours a diplomatic resolution of the conflict.

There is a traditional doctrine of the conduct of states which provides a framework for the kind of value judgments that need to be taken in these situations. It is the theological and philosophical doctrine of a just war formulated by St. Augustine and refined by St. Thomas Aquinas. By such a doctrine any war, to be just, must be a last resort with full negotiations beforehand. Success must at least appear possible, the means used must be unavoidable for achieving the goal and those means must be used proportionately and quantitatively so that they do not cause more damage than they are supposed to prevent. They must be proportional to what is wanted. By those criteria I do not think that war in the Gulf can be effective diplomatically or politically or that it can be ultimately justified. For those reasons we shall vote against the Adjournment.