Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:25 pm on 25th March 1999.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Secretary of State 1:25 pm, 25th March 1999

The House meets today against a sombre background. The decision to send our young men and women into action is a most awesome responsibility. No one who has taken part in a Cabinet decision to authorise military action, as I have, can be insensitive to the difficult judgments that have to be made. No burden on Government is more onerous.

This is also a sombre occasion for the House. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear on Tuesday, we support the Government's action. I know that the House will be united in its wholehearted support for the men and women who are taking part in the perilous action with skill, courage and great devotion to duty; for those who are backing them up, both in the area and at home; and for the families of those whose lives are at risk. Of course, we all share the relief the Foreign Secretary expressed that all our planes returned safely last night. But this House is an assembly of free men and women—it is not a rubber stamp. There are anxieties, concerns and doubts in all parts of the House, and they must be listened to with respect.

I believe that the action that has been taken is consistent with the requirements of a just war. There can be no doubt that what we have seen in Kosovo is a humanitarian crisis. We have seen it developing, growing and worsening for many months.

Who can forget the sight of families fleeing for their lives, their homes and villages razed to the ground? Who can forget the misery of those who have seen their loved ones brutally murdered? Who can forget the television pictures of massacres, such as that at Racak? There is a danger that statistics may mask the reality of the human suffering, but the facts are stark.

Since fighting broke out in Kosovo last year, more than 2,000 people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes. Relief agencies—who themselves have carried out their work tirelessly under impossible conditions—estimate that at least 25,000 Kosovar Albanians have fled in the last few days alone. They have done so in response to wave after wave of brutal aggression.

There are those who say that despite that aggression, despite the crimes against humanity that have been committed and despite the untold human misery that we have witnessed, NATO and the west should have stood by. I am not one of them. However, there are serious questions raised that merit a clear and comprehensive answer.

One of the requirements of a just war is that the suffering that is an inevitable consequence of military action should be less than the suffering that that action prevents. I have not been made privy to the detailed assessments of the matter, which NATO will doubtless have made—nor would I expect to have been. However, it is reasonable to assume—and I hope that I am right in assuming—that over the months that have been marked by a series of threats of such action, that careful assessment has been made of the consequences.

I have been critical in the past of the way in which those threats have not been followed through. Today is not the occasion to repeat those criticisms—sorely tempted as I was by the self-congratulatory tone of the Foreign Secretary's account of the diplomatic history of these matters.

There can be no doubt that last night's action was the product of lengthy planning and preparation. It must, too, have been the product of careful assessment, part of which will have included answers to the questions put from different quarters of the House last night and earlier in the week about what will happen after the bombing has stopped. I do not ask for detailed answers to those questions today. However, some matters appear to be clear, and I should be grateful if the Defence Secretary would confirm my understanding of them when he winds up.

First, the dispatch of troops to Macedonia some weeks ago was carried out with the declared intention of entering Kosovo in order to keep a peace that had already been made and of enforcing a ceasefire that had already been agreed. That is a very different proposition from having troops fight their way into Kosovo to impose a peace that has not been made and a ceasefire that has not been put in place.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made it clear on Tuesday that the support that he was expressing did not extend to that situation. The Foreign Secretary appeared to agree on the "Today" programme this morning that there was no question of our troops being used to fight their way in. I hope that the Defence Secretary will confirm that that is indeed the position.

My right hon. Friend the deputy Leader of the Opposition asked last night whether clear criteria had been drawn up under which the success of the action would be measured. He did not ask for those criteria to be identified, and nor do I. However, I repeat his request for an assurance that criteria have been drawn up and will be used to assess the success of the action that is taking place. In due course, once the action has finished, we expect an honest report on those criteria, and on the extent to which they have been met.

Many questions have been raised about the legal basis for NATO's action. Those questions are serious, and they require comprehensive answers. Is it the Government's view that the relevant resolutions of the Security Council—resolutions 1160, 1199 and 1203—provide a sufficient legal base for the NATO action? Or do the Government contend that there exists in international law a general right to intervene to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe? Is it their view that the action breaks new ground in international law?

It is extremely important to be clear about these important questions. On "Newsnight" last night, the Minister of State went so far as to suggest that there is in international law an obligation to intervene to prevent humanitarian disasters.