Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd June 1993.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 12:00 am, 22nd June 1993

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the latest situation regarding British forces in former Yugoslavia.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

British forces continue to make an important contribution to the United Nations humanitarian relief effort in Bosnia, having successfully escorted over 42,000 tonnes of aid since operations began. The events of recent weeks in central Bosnia have demonstrated the dangerous conditions under which our troops are working, and, as I am sure the House will agree, they have reacted to circumstances with outstanding professionalism.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I agree with the' latter part of the Secretary of State's response: there is undoubtedly much admiration in the House and in the country for the way in which British forces have operated in the former Yugoslavia.

However, would there not be a case for the rules of. engagement to be changed—obviously that would have to be done by the Security Council—so that allied troops could assist civilians fleeing terror and destruction? Is it not the case—this is no reflection on the Secretary of State—that, to a large extent, even humanitarian relief often depends on Serbian and Croatian commanders, who are carrying out what can only be described as a murderous pogrom against the Muslim population in Bosnia?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

We do not believe that the current rules of engagement need to be changed to assist the United Nations in its humanitarian efforts. Clearly, if a new mandate were to be considered for United Nations personnel, that would open up the question whether the rules of engagement were appropriate. However. it is crucial to emphasise that we do not consider it sensible or desirable that the United Nations should be asked to adopt a combat role in Bosnia. United Nations personnel are doing a superb job, saving many tens of thousands of lives at present. That in itself is justification for their presence.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , South Staffordshire

Is my right hon. and learned Friend confident that the rules of engagement are sufficient to protect the safe havens which the United Nations has declared should be safe havens? Are they truly safe, or can they he made truly safe, for the civilian population?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

The Secretary-General is at present seeking to put together a number of forces from various contributors who would be present within the safe havens. The United Kingdom has said that its contribution will be to continue to help deal with the situation in the Vitez area in central Bosnia, where there is tremendous tension between Croats and Muslims. We believe that the current rules of engagement are suitable for the task that British forces have been asked to do.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Does the Secretary of State recall that, on 14 January, when announcing the deployment of our naval task force in the Adriatic, he said that his overriding concern was for the safety of our forces, and added:— the provision of artillery in particular"— in particular— will enable us to respond to attacks"?—[Offcial Report, 14 January 1993; Vol. 216, c. 1058.] Will he now confirm that at, the very time when our troops in Bosnia are, in the Secretary of State's words, "facing the greatest risk", he has withdrawn the RFA Argus, which is loaded with the same artillery? Does he accept that his meek surrender to Treasury penny-pinching could well put our troops in Bosnia at risk?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman gets sillier as every day passes. As the decision to transfer the artillery back to the United Kingdom was taken on the advice of the Chief of the General Staff and not at the request of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he might have chosen to check his facts before making such a fool of himself.

Photo of Lady Olga Maitland Lady Olga Maitland , Sutton and Cheam

Does my right hon. and learned. Friend agree that it is not only the soldiers escorting the convoys that come under shellfire and sniping but also the civilian truck drivers, who are sent out to Bosnia by the Crown Agents based in my constituency? Four truck drivers have now been awarded the MBE in the Queen's birthday honours. Would my right hon. and learned Friend extend to them the same tributes that we have extended to our soldiers?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the remarkable contribution that has been made not only by uniformed personnel but by many thousands of civilians—including many British citizens—who have done a superb job, often in the most dangerous and difficult circumstances, to provide food, medical aid and other forms of assistance to people who so desperately need them.