Middle East

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 2:32 pm on 27th March 1998.

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Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Labour, Glasgow Kelvin 2:32 pm, 27th March 1998

First, I extend my warm congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on his important initiative, during his recent tour of middle eastern capitals, which attempted to restart the ailing middle east peace process. I noticed in this morning's press that my right hon. Friend is to be denied the pleasure of yet another dinner as a result of his principled and courageous efforts to achieve peace with honour, peace with justice, and peace for land in the middle east.

The well-publicised rudeness of Netanyahu, and that of his settler supporters and his police, tried but failed to divert world attention from the importance of illegally occupied Jerusalem. The Foreign Secretary was right to visit the illegal settlement in occupied Jerusalem. He was also right to say publicly that Jerusalem was a Palestinian capital as well. It is occupied in exactly the way that Kuwait was occupied by Iraq—by armed force. It is held in defiance of repeated decisions by the United Nations Security Council.

Similar rudeness by Netanyahu's cheerleaders here in Britain will equally fail, and will merely draw further attention to their hero's arrogant refusal to implement international law and solemn and binding treaties signed by his predecessors.

I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in anticipation of his visit to the Palestine National Authority. There are great expectations of him and his visit in the territory. Like the Foreign Secretary's efforts, the prospect of the visit has done much to lift the air of despair and depression in the Arab world and has buttressed the standing of this country in an area that is of great interest to us.

We maintain a huge balance of trade surplus with the Arab world. Our annual trade with Saudi Arabia alone is worth £3.8 billion—more than the total in trade with the whole of Latin America. Our surplus with the United Arab Emirates alone is £1 billion per year. We must never forget that, in pursuing a more balanced policy in the middle east, we are not only doing what is right, but serving our national interest, which is, after all, a legitimate part of any Government's foreign policy.

The middle east is historically important to us—nobody knows the area better than we do. We were guiding statecraft in Arabia when the cowboys were still wiping out the indigenous population of America and when the idea of obliterating the name Palestine from the maps of the world would have seemed incredible. The other day, Netanyahu had the nerve to say that the Europeans had no place in the middle east peace process because they did not understand the area. The House will recall that Sykes and Picot were not Americans.

The truth is that the reason why Netanyahu does not want us in the peace process is not that we do not understand the area, but that we understand it only too well. We understand the canyon of despair in the middle east that was created by the failure of Netanyahu to implement the Oslo agreements and by the failure of the United Nations and the world to force him to do so. That is what the Government have been told by our friends in the area—people who are our good customers and loyal allies, and who have taken considerable risks for peace.

I am talking about friends such as Qatar's admirable Foreign Minister Sheikh Hammed, who has expressed his fears about the rise of fanaticism in the area in the wake of that failure. The Crown Prince of Jordan last night spelt out on television the high price that our friends the Jordanians are paying and may yet pay for the paralysis in the peace process and the continuing crisis in the Gulf. The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, warned us of the shock waves of extremism that lurk in the Arab world, which will be unleashed unless something is done.

I had the opportunity of following the progress of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary while I was in three Arab countries—Syria, Jordan and Iraq—to which I travelled at the expense of, and in my capacity as, secretary of the Emergency Committee on Iraq. I can therefore tell the House that the British Government's stance—advocated in the name of the European Union, the largest collection of democracies in the world—was warmly received in both the chanceries and streets of the Arab world.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary should not be deterred by the predictable chorus of pro-Netanyahu propaganda that is recycled—to their discredit—by some Opposition Members and some newspapers, who irresponsibly adopt the Israeli line on these events not because they support Netanyahu, but because they are out to damage the Foreign Secretary and the Government.

As I said, I recently returned from that other flashpoint in the area—Iraq. Again, I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for the generosity of spirit with which he received my entreaties on behalf of the suffering children of that country. My right hon. Friend has always said that Britain has no quarrel with the ordinary people of Iraq, and I have always said that we should go out of our way to prove that—this, he has done.

There are encouraging signs of peace breaking out in Iraq. Mr. Richard Butler, the far from easily pleased head of the United Nations Special Commission spoke earlier this week of a remarkable new atmosphere of co-operation emerging between the United Nations inspectorate, its diplomatic escorts and the Iraqi Government. The first presidential site was successfully visited by a huge UNSCOM team yesterday.

When I met Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz last week, I stressed to him the importance of the swift and comprehensive implementation of the agreement brokered with great skill by the United Nations Secretary-General. I stressed the importance of avoiding at all costs any mistakes or misunderstandings in the implementation of those accords. The Deputy Prime Minister was clear that Iraq would implement the Secretary-General's agreement, both in spirit and to the letter.

Judging by what Mr. Butler has said, progress has started well. At this rate, the sites about which so much has been said will all have been inspected soon. Of course, there are rather fewer of them than we were told at the height of the recent crisis—eight rather than 48—and they are rather smaller than we were told or, indeed, shown on specially prepared maps here in the Chamber. Alas, the quality of our intelligence from Iraq has been poor, perhaps deliberately so.

In any case, let us be positive. That means that the job will be completed all the sooner. We must hope so, because time is running out for the long-suffering people of Iraq, a nation of 22 millions, with which we have had a long and close association and with which, not so long ago, we conducted huge volumes of business—I am talking about respectable business and not the obscenities of the arms trade—whose people we educated in our universities in huge numbers and whose tourists used to come here in greater numbers than from any other Arab country.

Time is running out because even a people with the fortitude of the Iraqis cannot suffer the depredations of sanctions indefinitely. Pre-famine conditions exist in Iraq, as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation has stated. UNICEF, the United Nation's Childrens Fund, says that 31 per cent. of Iraqi children under five are suffering from chronic malnutrition—almost one in three. On average, every child in Iraq suffers around 15 bouts of diarrhoea a year with a one in 50 chance of dying from what is an easily cured condition.

The Government may say that food and medicine are not covered by sanctions, but that is misleading to the point of being untrue. First, the current levels of the oil-for-food deal, which are double what they were, allow Iraq to sell just £2 billion worth of oil every six months, with strict UN supervision of how the money is spent. Of that sum, more than one third is deducted immediately for reparations payments to Kuwait and to cover the cost of the vast UN apparatus in Kuwait and Iraq. That leaves less than £3 billion per year for all food, medicines and other supplies for a country with a population nearly half the size of Britain's—30 cents per person per day.

To obtain a comparison, let us look at our expenditure on our health service alone of £44 billion per year. We see that the figure falls grotesquely short of Iraq's needs before even taking into account the aggregate effect of seven and a half long years of sanctions. It is true that the Government are proposing a further doubling of the amount, but it is equally true that Iraq cannot pump the amount of oil needed to realise that new sum without substantial rehabilitation of its capacity. Even if the figure is doubled to 60 cents per day, it will be a drop in the ocean.

Iraq is a sea of water-borne diseases. The sewerage systems have collapsed and the water purification systems too. Sometimes, solid waste comes through the taps. Many parts of Iraq have had no electricity since the war and all parts still suffer power black-outs, even hospitals, sometimes during operations. Cholera, typhoid and enteric diseases are on the march in that once-modern land. In 1990, there were 485 cases of Kwashiorkor, the starvation affliction introduced to the word's public in Biafra 30 years ago. Last year in Iraq, there were 28,475 cases. I beg my hon. Friend not to treat those figures as though they were controversial. They are not mine—I have deliberately chosen figures produced by the United Nations agencies.

I walked through that misery in Iraq last week, and hard-bitten journalists from the American, French, German and British media wept with me at what we found in two children's hospitals, which were filthy because cleaning materials are banned under sanctions. Cleaners do not turn up to work because their salaries are only $2 a month, and doctors sweep floors as well as treating patients and comforting their families for only $3 a month. There are no sheets on beds, because they are banned under sanctions, and other bedclothes are washed in diesel, because detergents are banned under sanctions.

Hospital equipment has virtually all broken down, and spare parts are banned under sanctions. There is almost no intravenous fluid: it, too, is banned under sanctions, as are insulin; vitamins; until recently, syringes; doctors' pencils; and even plastic bags that hold blood or collect waste matter from open wounds. Anaesthetic is virtually unobtainable, as are radiotherapy treatment and X-rays, which are banned under sanctions.

Drugs are either unaffordable or undependable, and arrive in the wrong combinations at the wrong times. Much worse, a cancer epidemic afflicting many children who were not born at the time of the conflict between this country and Iraq appears to have broken out. In 1989, there were 2,185 cases of leukaemia, and 385 deaths. In 1996, there were 9,785 new cases of cancer, and 3,320 deaths. The figures for 1997 suggest that the trend is accelerating.

The incomparable Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent, and other noble British journalists who are investigating this disaster, point to the enormous bombardment of southern Iraq in 1991 with 927,000 uranium-tipped aircraft bullets and 30,000 armour-piercing shells which were tipped with depleted uranium for greater penetrative power. Those weapons were tested in Scotland, and 20 tonnes of them still lie festering in the Solway firth, but 300 tonnes of uranium dust has been left in the sands of the Gulf—in the water and in the food chain, and in the chests and blood of the children of Iraq.

Our own service men were ignored by the previous Government when they complained of Gulf war syndrome. Fisk argues that the syndrome and the suffering of the Iraqis, who were on the receiving end of the ordnance, may be linked. Like the children of parents poisoned by agent orange, the American chemical weapon used in attacks on the peoples of Vietnam, Iraqi children are victims of a conflict that they did not choose and could not affect.

Having visited the cancers on Iraq's children, we would be putting them in double jeopardy if we maintained a blockade that effectively starved Iraq's children of the remedies. I cannot prove that those weapons cause the cancers, but there is a case to answer, and the question mark hanging over it is so large that it demands a response.

We have an armada of soldiers and sailors armed with cruise missiles standing to in the Arabian gulf. Hon. Members would do much to inform the people of Iraq of the values of western civilisation if we sent an army of cancer experts armed with radiotherapy equipment, diagnostic tools and suitcases of chemotherapy drugs to help the beleaguered Iraqi health service to combat this malignancy.

This policy must end sooner or later—we are not fighting the hundred years war—and it no longer commands the support in the Arab world, among our European partners or in the Security Council that it did. It would be better to bring the policy to an end in a calculated and negotiated way. If that is not done, it will begin to collapse in ways which we cannot accurately foretell and which may lead to even more terrifying instability in the region, to the detriment of people with whom we have no quarrel, of friendly Governments in the neighbouring middle eastern countries and, ultimately, of our own national interests.