Iraqi Refugees

Part of Constitutional Reform – in the House of Commons at 5:06 pm on 3rd July 1991.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 5:06 pm, 3rd July 1991

Indeed I did.

The refugees who need medicines and food but who are not covered by any of the aid agencies should be dealt with urgently.

As a Kurdish political leader emphasised when the offer of negotiations was first made by Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish question is not a refugee problem and should not become one. It is a political problem. Although the first stage of the refugee crisis is over, the long-term future of the Kurds and Shi'ites remains to be settled. As the Select Committee says, it leaves the grim prospect of a seemingly unending refugee operation of Palestinian proportions". When I first told the House that Saddam Hussein wanted to negotiate with the Kurds, hon. Members laughed. That was the level of scepticism with which Saddam Hussein's words were treated. The Kurdish leaders who had to stand by and watch their people die in their thousands had no option at that time but to take up the offer and the talks have now gone on for several weeks. The agreement that was brought back to Kurdistan from Baghdad demands that the Kurds cut direct ties with the west and unite with Saddam Hussein's Baath party to crush its enemies. The agreement includes the denunciation of the United States, Iran and Zionism, and the Kurds would need the Baath party's permission to contact outside Governments and organisations. Mr. Barzani of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and Mr. Talibani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, along with the other political leaders in Kurdistan, rightly rejected those conditions as the obligations entailed in such an offer were clearly intolerable.

Once again, strengthened by the allies' agreement to support the deployment of a rapid reaction force to protect the Kurds, the Kurds are spelling out their own conditions. They stipulate that there can be no autonomy for the Kurds without democracy and human rights for Iraq as a whole. They have asked for the next stage of the negotiations to take place in Kurdistan rather than Baghdad. They have no intention of splitting off from the opposition to Saddam Hussein in Iraq because they know full well that they will have no long-term peace and stability unless there is peace and democracy in Iraq as a whole.

Although many of the issues raised by the Select Committee were debated in the Opposition debate on 14 May I am glad that we were able to share some of its concern—for instance, about the fact that the Overseas Development Administration is strapped for cash. As the Select Committee said, the aid programme contingency reserve has been subjected to severe strain. The Committee continued: this suggests that the ODA will have considerable difficulty in finding new money for further commitments entered into during the year". The money that might have been used for long-term development purposes will need to be drawn on for emergency relief before the Treasury will provide new money. The Select Committee might have mentioned also that the overall aid budget has been slashed since 1979. It is still 11 per cent. lower in real terms than it was then. Despite continuing claims by the Government, that budget is stagnant in real terms.

The ODA lacks not only cash but staff, as we have continually pointed out. Each time we have pressed the Minister in the House we have created new jobs in the ODA's disaster and refugee unit. The numbers have risen from four to six, from six to nine and nine to 12, and I pay tribute to the staff of the unit, who had to deal with three major disasters at the same time.

We made several suggestions. We dealt with the charges for the relief effort as distributed from the Ministry of Defence to the ODA. We argued that the costs should be shared, as they are in some other countries, to reflect the training value of using the military in civilian disasters. We called for a mobile emergency volunteer force with selection and co-ordination in advance of a disaster. We called for a strengthening of the ODA's disaster unit so that it would have in-house expertise on aspects of disasters apart from rapid procurement.

We also emphasised the need to encourage a strengthening of the UN agencies most involved in responding to disasters. The UN has been criticised frequently, and often unfairly. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs. Ogata, told us at a meeting at the House yesterday that she accepted some of this criticism, but she emphasised again that the UNagencies involved in emergency operations were neither financed nor staffed to be able to meet large scale crises. She said that for every emergency the UN has to issue a fresh appeal, and pledges from donor nations come in much too slowly. She said: We cannot respond to emergencies on credit, or on shoestring budget living hand to mouth". What ought we to do if we want the UN to perform more effectively in the future? First, donors must place at the disposal of the UN a standby financial reserve to pay for a response within hours of a recognised emergency. Stockpiles of basic relief items should be set up in locations easily accessible to air transport. A central databank should be set up on a range of goods and services that the UN can offer or mobilise. A pool of international experts is needed to respond immediately to any emergency and could be linked with civil disaster relief groups of member Governments. In other words, we need a system that gives the UN the money, the goods and the people to respond rapidly and effectively to disasters.

UN agencies, especially the UN disaster relief organisation, already exist. We should strengthen that organisation before inventing new ones or dreaming up new supremos. We should give it the means to perform its proper role. Once the UN agencies are assured of enough cash and clout to operate effectively, it will be worth reviewing their mandates to strengthen their roles. We must ensure they can meet the emergency needs of people displaced in their own countries as well as the needs of refugees who flee across borders into others.

This debate is about Iraqi refugees, but according to the UN and many other observers all of Iraq is threatened by increasing malnutrition and disease. Unfortunately, it is doubtful whether the ending of sanctions, for which some argue, would much improve the lot of ordinary Iraqis, given the inflation in that country and Saddam Hussein's priorities.

Humanitarian relief is of course exempt from sanctions, but one of the problems is that the UN does not have enough people on the ground to monitor where the relief is going. A recent example involved 12 food lorries sent into Kurdistan to feed the Kurdish refugees. Six of them ended up feeding Iraqi military personnel and the other six ended up feeding Government supporters. Unless we can guarantee that this sort of relief does not fall into the wrong hands it will be difficult to ensure that humanitarian aid goes to the people for whom it is meant.

In April, questions were asked in the House about what steps the Government were taking to secure Saddam Hussein's trial under international law on charges of war crimes. The Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) that he was awaiting legal advice in the matter. Earlier, the Foreign Ministers of the European Community had called on the United Nations to consider putting Saddam Hussein and his senior aides on trial before an international court. A similar demand was made by the United States Senate foreign relations committee on 18 April. The United Nations secretary-general promised to refer the request to a special committee before taking a decision. That committee is apparently still deliberating. Why is it taking so long?

The world still has great expectations of the United Nations as a global institution which can provide the vision and the mechanism for reducing global tensions and promoting peace, for protecting human rights and promoting economic development in the third world. The debate about the future of the United Nations is now focusing around questions about the reform of its charter, the make-up of the Security Council and the role of the secretary-general. The Select Committee rightly asked whether the United Nation's power to intervene in the internal conflicts of nations ought to be clarified, and rightly suggested that if clearer rules were established for such intervention, it would mean that grinding, endless and bloody conflicts all over the world could be brought to an end.

I doubt whether anyone can argue convincingly any longer against the right of the world body to move in and interfere in what used to be regarded as internal national affairs so as to protect the human rights of oppressed minorities. One thing is certain: the world can never again sit on its hands and idly watch brutal dictators killing hundreds of thousands of their own people in cold blood.