Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 6:37 pm on 25th March 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence 6:37 pm, 25th March 1999

No, I am afraid that I must continue if I am to answer the issues raised by my hon. Friend, and others.

Russia has figured largely in the debate, from quite surprising sources not known in the past to give much support to Russia's role within the world. This is an issue of some concern. British-Russian relations have improved markedly over the past two years, and we value those relations. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to the Russian Prime Minister Mr. Primakov earlier today. The Russian position is well known, but the discussions between the two Prime Ministers were perfectly friendly.

Hon. Members have asked about the military objectives of the Government and of NATO. They are clear cut; to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe by disrupting the violent attacks currently being carried out by the Yugoslav security forces against the Kosovar Albanians, and to limit their ability to conduct such repression in future. We have not set ourselves the task of defeating the Yugoslav army. We are engaged in an effort to reduce Milosevic's repressive capacity, and we are confident that we will achieve that.

Hon. Members have asked when the bombing will stop, and when we will assess that we have achieved the objectives. What happens next is essentially up to Milosevic himself. The next stage is there for him. At Rambouillet, the Kosovar Albanians signed up—in compromise to their principles and objectives—to a text that would have protected the integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Milosevic can agree to that deal at any time. If we are convinced that he is genuine, the air attacks will stop. The international community also expects Milosevic to show, in more than just a nominal sense, that he will stop the violence and carnage in Kosovo.

I wish to refer to the question of a legal base, which the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) dealt with in some detail. He made an interesting and valuable point which the House should bear in mind; that the principles of international law—indeed, international law itself—did not start with the UN. International law preceded the UN, and these principles are there whatever the UN charter says. They are clear.

There are those in the House who doubt that there is a legal base, and have questioned the legality of the action. The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark)—who has left the Chamber—asked a question about civil liability with which I wish to deal. We are in no doubt that NATO is acting within international law. Our legal justification rests upon the accepted principle that force may be used in extreme circumstances to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Those circumstances clearly exist in Kosovo.

The use of force in such circumstances can be justified as an exceptional measure in support of purposes laid down by the UN Security Council, but without the Council's express authorisation, when that is the only means to avert an immediate and overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe. UN Security Council resolution 1199 clearly calls on the Yugoslav authorities to take immediate steps to cease their repression of the Kosovar Albanians and to enter into a meaningful dialogue, leading to a negotiated political solution.

Several hon. Members asked for a precedent for attacking a sovereign nation from the air in the light of the legal provisions. That point has been answered by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who has more reason than most of us to know. I was here, at the Dispatch Box for the Opposition, when there were calls from all over the country and all over the world to save the Kurds who were being systematically exterminated by Saddam Hussein. The precedent, the principle and the emergency situation were the same, and we took action to save the Kurds. The no-fly zones are still in place, and thousands of Kurds who would not otherwise be alive today remain in them.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea asked about civil liability if any weapon were to hit civilian targets. I understand the legal position to be that no circumstances can arise from our actions that would give rise to liability for compensation for damage to civilian property.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater, the shadow Foreign Secretary, the shadow Defence Secretary and some of my hon. Friends all asked about strain on our armed forces. Even those who have not raised that issue in debate are concerned about that point. Ours are the finest fighting forces in the world, but they are involved in more active operations today than at any other peacetime period. Of course, the term "peacetime" takes on a new meaning in the dangerous post-cold war world.

Some have prayed in aid the Chief of Defence Staff's reference to planning assumptions in the strategic defence review. He gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence last July, saying that the assumptions are planning tools and that it would be a mistake to think that the levels were absolutely in stone".

As we explained throughout the review, we may, in particular circumstances, decide to do less than its assumptions provide for, or we may be able to do more. SDR planning was based on being able to mount two concurrent operations at full brigade level. Maintaining deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo will be very demanding but the overall forces involved are not of that order.

The Chief of Defence Staff is content with the current proposals. If we deployed, we would not be talking about indefinite deployment. As the situation improves, we will look to reduce numbers. After the likely replacement of the headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps with another headquarters, the numbers should fall markedly in that theatre.

Several hon. Members have raised the issue of ground forces. Some have said that there is no solution that does not involve land forces fighting their way into Kosovo, or being part of a force that was doing so. The Liberal Democrats have chosen to talk about achieving some United Nations protectorate, and maintaining it with the land forces who would be opposed on entry to Serbia.

We have not set ourselves the task of defeating the Yugoslav army. We are engaged in an effort to reduce Milosevic's repressive capability and we will achieve that. We have no intention of sending ground forces into Kosovo except with the agreement of both parties. This is a limited military action with a strictly humanitarian objective, which we believe can be achieved through air strikes. We do not think that it would be right to escalate this into a major ground invasion, in which many lives might be lost and the humanitarian crisis could be made worse.