Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:40 pm on 31st May 1995.

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Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 4:40 pm, 31st May 1995

The House will have listened with great respect to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who spoke of his personal experiences in Bosnia. I am sure that other hon. Members will join me in hoping that when he returns—if he does—in the summer recess, he will be able to do so under the extra security that the Government's measures will provide.

I cannot help reflecting on the fact that this is the second time in five years that the House has expressed outrage about the use of human shields. We expressed outrage during the Gulf war when Saddam Hussein took such action. I remember the importance that we attached to speaking with the clearest possible voice, so that there was no doubt whatever about where the House, the Government and this country stood in defence of our armed forces and the outrage against any taking of hostages.

The lesson that we learned from the Gulf war is that many audiences watch our debates on television, and not only in this country. Saddam Hussein was an avid listener to the House's proceedings, hoping to detect signs of weakness, disunity and encouragement for his cause. I have no doubt that reports will quickly pass to Pale on whether the United Kingdom stands staunchly behind the Government's actions.

I support the Government's action. For very good causes, we have a duty to our forces which are, to use an old phrase, in harm's way. We are clearly concerned to ensure that our hostages, the taking of whom was outrageous, are released immediately and restored to their units.

Despite the few dissenting elements and discordant voices, which echo those expressed in our debates five years ago, when the same war and anti-war parties emerged in the House, I recognise the same spirit among hon. Members that produced the largest majority that I can remember in support of our forces in their time of need. I have no doubt that the same House of Commons will strongly support—if it is needed—our armed forces should they face danger overseas. I welcome the speeches in support of the Government's position made by—of course—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

I say to those who might encourage alternative action that, even if it were possible, I would be appalled by the idea of an immediate withdrawal. It would send a message that blackmail works and that people only have to take hostages to be successful. What an effect that would have on any future United Nations effort. Any discordant group would know that all that it had to do was grab a few people who were deployed for humanitarian, peacekeeping purposes and the will of the free world would dissolve rapidly like the mist. As we know, that would encourage the taking of yet more hostages.

I have been enormously impressed by what has been achieved. I say no more because I bow to the experience of the hon. Member for East Lothian. The House and this country should be very proud of what we have done and the part that we have played. Of course we could have stood aside, of course we could have said, as some did, that the conflict was nothing to do with us, that it was a long way away and that although we could see people dying on television, other people were dying in places that television could not reach. We did what we could and I have no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people— arguably, an even greater number—are alive because of the efforts that have been made.

I respect what has been achieved and I am desperately keen to ensure that, if possible, such work continues. If we send additional forces, which I support, we must be clear about the basis on which we do so. We owe it to those forces to ensure that their rules of engagement and the mandate—whatever phrase is used—are clear. The exercise must not become a one-way delivery system of extra equipment to the warring factions. Many envious eyes will be cast on the 105 mm artillery that we are sending. We had better have some very clear rules of engagement to ensure that any valuable or powerful equipment sent out is properly defended.

The number of troops is not the whole matter. It is interesting to note that we are increasing the number of British troops to the number that the French have, effectively, already deployed. There have been 37 French casualties, and a significant number of the 333 hostages are French. The number of troops sent is no guarantee of security unless people are empowered with the right rules of engagement and the right authority to act to protect their position.

The biggest mistake is to imagine that the previous crisis teaches us all the lessons that we need to know about the current crisis, but the clarity of authority was a major factor in the achievement of the rapid and successful completion of the Gulf war. Although that war was certainly under the authority of the United Nations, there was a very clear command structure. We did not engage in endless public ministerial meetings about exactly when, for example, the air campaign would start. We had the authority to proceed and we managed to achieve an element of surprise. We did not have ministerial meetings in public in Brussels, New York, Washington or elsewhere to determine whether the left hook would be employed for the land attack to outflank the Iraqi defence.

Of course in Bosnia we face a different situation and comparisons cannot be made, but there is no question that such public meetings have put our commanders at a great disadvantage and have made the task on which we have embarked so much more difficult. I therefore hope that, while we will receive considerable advice and persuasion from many countries that are not so involved, the greater responsibility for command and authority will lie with those that are involved, whose troops are present and that are playing their part under the overall authority of the United Nations.

I hope that there is very close co-ordination. I have seen the report that the recapture of the post on the bridge may have been due to a policy change authorised by President Chirac, who ordered that French troops were to cede no more ground and allow no more humiliation. I can understand that reaction in the light of the experiences of the French forces. It is very important that if that is a change of policy—I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make the position clear in his speech—an absolutely co-ordinated view among the UN forces undertaking this important and valuable role is established.

Much has been said already in support of the Prime Minister's decisions, and there is no need to repeat many of the points that have been made, but one lesson that we must learn from the present crisis is the importance of keeping Russia involved. That is crucial, both in the short and long term—in the short term with regard to the immediate position over the hostages and any opportunity that there may be for Russia to play her part in ensuring their release.

With regard to the longer term, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has often illustrated the importance of our role in Bosnia by reminding us how many cemeteries in this country are filled with those who died in a war that arose out of the Balkans. Of course that conflict was partly due to the problems of the Balkans themselves but, in the very nature of a world war, it owed more to the fact that other nations then sought to become involved.

Throughout the cold war it was NATO's great dread that Yugoslavia would collapse when Tito died so that, at a time of maximum tension, that cockpit of the struggle for influence would suddenly present problems. We must be thankful that the crisis that NATO expected did not occur until after the end of the cold war. It is crucial that the improvement in relations that is now possible is maintained, and that we keep the closest possible contacts between ourselves and Russia, so as to ensure that, if things do not work out as we hope, there is no risk of the conflagration ever spreading on the scale that we have seen in the past.