Iraqi Refugees

Part of Constitutional Reform – in the House of Commons at 5:54 pm on 3rd July 1991.

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Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton 5:54 pm, 3rd July 1991

That is an interesting suggestion; however, it would not cover circumstances in which a country that had not previously offended against the international rule of law did so for the first time.

What we are now discussing is precisely how such an extension of the United Nations' effective power can be achieved. It has already been asked in this debate whether a change in article 2·7 is necessary, or whether it is sufficient for the general authority of the United Nations declaration on human rights—which is there among other things to prevent genocide—to prevail over that article. Should any such United Nations involvement proceed by way of separate resolutions, specifying the need to ensure peace and stability in the region concerned? Such a resolution was adopted at the time of the Gulf war.

Let me state the obvious: in that instance, the use of the resolution did not prevent Saddam Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait with much of his republican guard and goodness knows how many divisions of his army intact; with hundreds of tanks; with 150 aeroplanes and 500 helicopters; with the capacity for nuclear, chemical and biological warfare; and with 100 Scud missiles.

Equally disturbing are the impertinent—but none the less deeply worrying—repeated Iraqi declarations of intent to reoccupy Kuwait, Iraq's refusal to allow inspections of its potential nuclear sites and the continuous broadcasts on a number of radio stations throughout the region, telling their Arabic audience that the war had really been won by Saddam Hussein and that all declarations to the contrary were merely United States propaganda following that nation's defeat. All those developments have merely followed the adoption of the separate resolution: clearly, it did not solve the problem.

It would be presumptuous and impertinent of me to suggest at this stage that I had the answers, and I make no such suggestion. Surely, however, we can all agree that the UN's powers must be strengthened, and that this is a good time to do so. When the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs saw UN officials in Washington, we gained the strong impression that they were apologising for the fact that any military support had been necessary.

At a moment when the UN had just risen like a new born foal standing up for the first time—at a moment when the world should have been looking to that organisation for greater purpose and determination, and a wish to strengthen its approach—we were hearing apologies. We should watch that tendency carefully, and do what we can to strengthen the resolve of whoever succeeds Mr. Perez de Cuellar as UN Secretary-General.

My second point concerns the plight of more than 2 million refugees—mainly the Kurds in the north and the Shi'ites in the south—who have fled in terror from Saddam Hussein. It is time that the international community united to provide a more effective, more efficient and therefore more life-saving system to deal with humanitarian disasters of this kind, and also with national disasters. It was satisfying to hear from the mouths of the Iranians that the quality of the United Kingdom's response had been perceived as good, and also that, in terms of the quantity of emergency relief to Iran, we ranked third in the list of donors. I believe that we have contributed more than £80 million in humanitarian relief alone.

The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) said that the Government's aid contribution had fallen below the gross national product level at which we are aiming. Let me tell the hon. Lady not only that we were thanked and praised for the amount of financial aid that we were providing, but that, throughout our visit, I heard no one say, "If only the British Government could provide more money." As further disasters occur, we may well have to find more money because we have given so much to the Iraqi refugees; but we are here debating aid for those refugees. [Interruption.] Let me assure the hon. Member for Cynon Valley, and any other doubters on the Opposition Front Bench, that no one else has brought to our attention any such complaint.

There can be little doubt that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Iraqi lives have been saved by the Prime Minister's initiative in establishing safe havens where Iraqi citizens can be protected from attacks by the military forces, and by the deployment of between 3,000 and 5,000 British troops. Thousands of people, some of them starving, have been brought down from the mountains, fed and sheltered and provided with life-saving medicines.

Outside those havens, in the Iranian refugee camps, we found great cause for concern. What will happen when the bad weather comes—and, indeed, when boredom strikes, if it has not done so already? Tens of thousands of people are living in impossibly cramped conditions with nothing to do—many of them people of action, former members of the Peshmerga guerrilla group. If confidence does not return—sadly, the Select Committee did not think that it would, given the existing circumstances—action will be urgently needed.

What is needed, if efficiency is to be improved, and what is barely available in the case of the Iraqi refugees, is a United Nations force of sufficient strength to deter an aggressor from further action against his victims. The United States does not want its troops to stay in the Gulf, where they believe that they are not welcome and where they are terrified of developing a long-term commitment of the Vietnam kind. The British and the other coalition forces are similarly unenthusiastic, and feel unable to take on such a commitment. It is possible that the Turkish army, the Syrian army, another army or a combination of all those will have to provide for the protection of ethnic minorities in the region; certainly, a Gulf security system will have to be worked out. The next report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which is due shortly, will address that issue.

No one can deny that it is regrettable that comparatively few of the intended 500 United Nations field service officers have materialised. There are about 135 United Nations staff in Iraq, plus 70 seconded from Nordic non-governmental organisations and Governments, but there are only 48 field officers, of whom nine have now left.

That has meant that the coalition forces will have to remain, perhaps indefinitely, to provide reassurance for the Kurds so that they will return to their homes without fear. As we say in our report, it would be wrong for the coalition forces to leave them to the mercy of Saddam Hussein's troops. Something more must be done urgently for the United Nations to get its enforcement powers together.

The second element required is a far more efficient system of organising and distributing aid. Those of us who saw the Kurdish camps in Ziveh and the Shi'ite camp in Shush were most impressed by the work done by the NGOs to feed, shelter and provide medical treatment for the refugees. However, we heard stories about total lack of co-ordination, some of which have been mentioned in the debate. We hear such stories repeated in disaster after disaster.

We heard that sometimes the wrong type of tent or the wrong sort of food supplies are sent. Supplies that are surplus to requirements in one camp are sometimes not available in another camp where they are desperately needed. We heard about the duplication of medicines and sometimes the wrong sort of medicine, the sending of a large number of unnecessary helicopters and second-hand unserviceable equipment. We heard of the sending of high-energy biscuits when the need for them had passed and the only use for them was to use the wrappers to provide shelter and warmth.

We heard of dedicated NGOs duplicating each other's efforts and nearly getting in each other's way. One NGO group—I think that it was a French group—returned home in pique and disgust. We have heard of hesitancy from some sources in providing financial assistance because of uncertainty about the use to which it would be put. We understand that there are pressures against efficiency.