Iraqi Refugees

Part of Constitutional Reform – in the House of Commons at 6:27 pm on 3rd July 1991.

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Photo of Mr Jacques Arnold Mr Jacques Arnold , Gravesham 6:27 pm, 3rd July 1991

I believe that we have two lessons to learn from the Kurdistan refugee crisis: first, the potential effectiveness of the European Community as a powerful forum for initiative in foreign affairs; and, secondly, the key role that is being played by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

We all watched the events of the Kuwait campaign and the 100 hours to the ceasefire. That ceasefire has left Saddam Hussein in charge, but was due, after only 100 hours, in no small part to the scars of Vietnam on the American nation. We are all aware of the reluctance of the United States to become involved in foreign adventures, and its fears of getting bogged down.

In Europe, and in Britain in particular, the reaction was very different. The public were concerned. We were all extremely moved by scenes on our televisions of masses of civilian populations who were totally unprepared for their movement into the mountains. Rightly, in Europe there was a wave of humanitarian revulsion at what we were seeing, and a demand for immediate action.

The initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the European Community summit in Luxembourg on 8 April got the bandwagon going. The agreement between European Community leaders to take action caused the United States to make an active response, which we saw on 16 April with the joint announcement by the United States, France and Britain that they would send troops to northern Iraq to co-ordinate the relief work and to establish safe encampments. We now know that it met with considerable success. Most of the Kurdish civilians have come down from the mountains. Some went into the camps and are still there, but most have been moved back to their original homes in Iraqi Kurdistan. There has also been a European initiative to transport refugees back from Iran.

The lessons to learn are that we have a Prime Minister who has rapidly gained in international stature to give a lead in effective action on the world stage, and that the European nations, working in concert, carry a mighty diplomatic clout which can precipitate action on a world scale and can influence the United States to change its position.

However, problems remain. We must somehow maintain the confidence of the Kurds who have returned home and persuade them to stay put in their homes and to feel secure. The allied forces in the area are currently providing that security, but there is a real fear of their withdrawal. However, the sending of United Nations guards to the area is no effective solution. That is exemplified by a letter sent by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on 30 May to the president of the Security Council.

The annex to the letter contains descriptions of the deployment of those guards. For example, it states: The number of Guards in the Contingent will be kept under review as further units are dispatched, but will not exceed a total strength of 500. When one considers the residual strength of the Iraqi armed forces and the vast size of the Kurdish populations involved, one realises that the number is wholly inadequate.

The annex to the letter continues: The number of Guards assigned to the various regions will be decided in consultation with the Government authorities concerned"— which means mainly Iraq— but would not exceed 150 in any one region. Again, that is wholly inadequate in view of the scale of the country.

It is even more farcical that the annex continues: United Nations Guards will be authorized to carry side-arms (pistols/revolvers), which will be provided by the Iraqi authorities". Clearly, the United Nations guards can play only a symbolic role. They are poorly funded even for the limited job that they have been sent to do. I understand that a special fund has been established within the United Nations. It is interesting that the United Kingdom is the largest contributor and is way ahead of others—notably the United States. Will the Minister confirm the leading role that we are also playing in that respect?

To answer the question why a United Nations force has not been sent and why we are confined to the services of valiant doorkeepers, one has only to read The Economist of 22 June, which summed up the matter neatly: Neither the Soviet Union nor China would approve action"— the dispatch of a United Nations force— on the Kurds' behalf in the full glare of the Security Council. They feared the precedent such intervention could set for, say, Tibet or the Baltic republics. Other countries, standing by the clause in the UN charter that bars it from internal disputes, felt the same. That highlights the continuing practical limitations of the United Nations, which is, of course, bound up in the various legalities which were dealt with so well by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). It is tragic that the United Nations did so well with the nation of Kuwait, but is largely paralysed over the internal problems of Iraq, notably those in Kurdistan.

It is clear that we must maintain a strong military presence until the establishment of an adequate intervention force by the allies. In particular, we must ensure that the airborne capacity is adequate for the task.