Shortly after the first emergency debate on the Gulf crisis in September, I went out to Iraq with my hon. Friends the Members for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry). We were the first hon. Members to visit Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, and we were members of an international peace mission with two objectives—first, to make representations for the release of hostages and, secondly, to try to establish whether there was any basis for a peaceful settlement to the crisis. In the context of the first objective, I am sure that the whole House, the country and the world will welcome last Thursday's announcement of the release of hostages. It now looks as though many families will have a happy Christmas and will be reunited with their loved ones who have been forcibly separated from them for many months.
Last Thursday's announcement was a vindication of the efforts made by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) and my colleagues who took part in the mission of which I was a member. We were subjected to a great deal of criticism, vilification and verbal abuse before we even left this country on that peace mission. In September, as now, there was far too much talk of war and those who wished to speak of peace were treated almost like lunatics or traitors.
Despite all the criticism, our stance was justified. We tried to comunicate with the Iraqi authorities rather than toeing the line of our critics, who claimed that the best way to proceed was to refuse to communicate and to seek to isolate the enemy. Now even the Americans have come round to the idea of talking to Saddam Hussein, and that is also to be welcomed, but I am dismayed—indeed, I am appalled—that the British Government seem simply to parrot the American line that talks should not develop into constructive dialogue and constructive dialogue should not be allowed to develop into meaningful negotiations even though negotiations are explicitly referred to in item 3 of United Nations resolution 660.
The only hope of peace in Kuwait, Iraq and, indeed, throughout the middle east is to ensure that the talks develop into dialogue and that dialogue develops into meaningful negotiations. We must try to obtain a peaceful settlement with the consistent implementation of United Nations resolutions, including Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. We must consider the wider region with Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Yet instead, the American and British Governments seem hell bent on using United Nations resolution 678 as a mandate for war, even though there is no explicit reference in that resolution either to war or to the use of force. The resolution explicitly refers to the use of "all necessary means" of implementing other United Nations resolutions.
It could be argued that the use of force may not be necessary, particularly if more effort is put into finding a diplomatic solution. In other words, non-violent means have not been exhausted. As other hon. Members have said, we must give sanctions more time to work. But above all, genuine negotiations must be entered into—we must not simply rely on a massive military build-up which could escalate into chemical, biological and even nuclear warfare, with horrendous consequences for people in the area and possibly for many of our constituents, too.
Today is almost certainly our last chance to debate and vote on this issue before the mid-January deadline, and it may be the last chance to do so before the outbreak of war. If there is no vote today, the Government will claim a unanimous mandate from Parliament for declaring war and, in effect, pronouncing a death sentence on many people, including innocent men, women and children, and many of our constituents who are out there in the armed forces.
It was interesting to note at Prime Minister's Question Time that in response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) we received no assurance from the Prime Minister that he would rule out the possibility of conscription. I say this to the Defence Secretary: I would support any young constituent of mine who tore up and burned a conscription paper. I say that to the warmongers in this House, the White House, or wherever they may lurk. Why do they not ever so bravely volunteer their own services and go out to the Gulf themselves instead of sending young people out there to be killed or maimed for life?
I believe that a vote for the Government today may be interpreted as a vote for war; a vote against them will certainly be a vote for peace.