Coalition Against International Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:02 pm on 1st November 2001.

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Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston 2:02 pm, 1st November 2001

I did not endeavour to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or that of Mr. Speaker during the earlier debates on this extremely serious matter because I wanted to speak with the aid agencies and assess the humanitarian aspects of the crisis. I now want to address my remarks to that issue.

If there is a Division tonight, I shall support the Government because the arguments have led overwhelmingly to the conclusion, consistent with the view of the majority of the British people, that what the Government are doing reflects what the British people expect from a responsible Government.

I do not want to become involved in the war of words about news management between Mr. Jenkin and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. However, the media's influence on public opinion is important. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for North Essex, if there is a problem regarding news management—in fairness, perhaps there is—the media and the press have their responsibilities as well. It is probably better coming from me as a Back Bencher, speaking for myself alone, if I say that not only do the media have rights, which we are seeking to defend, they have responsibilities. They may from time to time want to address themselves to those responsibilities.

On Monday I listened to the "Today" programme on Radio 4 for about two hours. To the programme's credit, it ended with a brief discussion on that very matter. One of the contributors in the studio was Colonel John Hughes Wilson, formerly of the Defence Intelligence Service. He quoted Lawrence of Arabia's words:

"News management—the press—is the most important weapon of war."

It may be, but if it is, and given the complexities that we are facing, when the media choose whom they want to interview they should remember that a large number of people from the 90-odd nations that support the coalition come from Muslim communities. Perhaps we could hear from them from time to time.

On the diplomatic side, I strongly welcome what the Prime Minister has been doing during the past few days, particularly in seeking to influence Israel and Palestine. We all know that that is really at the heart of a solution to these problems.

Let me mention two countries, Pakistan and India, which Parliament holds in high regard, and the contribution of which they are capable. There are, of course, sensitivities—both countries are nuclear powers. However, on the diplomatic side it is right that we continue to press for fruitful negotiations on Kashmir, given the friction that there is, the three wars that have already taken place between those two nations and the enormous pressure on both in the current crisis. We want to be even-handed. India has 130 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia.

I come now to the humanitarian challenge in Afghanistan. For more than 20 years, Afghanistan has been in the grip of a huge humanitarian crisis. There has been conflict; for the past three years there has been drought. There were many problems with refugees before 11 September. Some 1.5 million Afghan refugees have settled in Iran and 2 million in Pakistan. Today, the United Nations' projected figure for displaced or stranded people—among the most vulnerable of human beings—is around 7.5 million. That is a remarkable challenge.

Famine and diseases such as malaria are increasing; and infant mortality is also increasing on a huge scale. I believe that everyone in the House wants to respond passionately to that challenge. We know of the big demands on the medical centres. We know, too—I say this with some pride—that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has led in dealing with these problems. Of the EU contribution, 19 per cent.—nearly a fifth—came from us. That was well beyond what might be expected on a per capita basis.

I have listened, as have other right hon. and hon. Members, to the important views of the aid agencies, which for years, not just for the past few weeks and months, have been at the front line in trying to deal with the problems. I know that they are not unanimous in their view about, for example, whether there should be a pause in the war. Some, such as Oxfam, and others that speak from its perspective, take the view that that should take place. They tell us in all candour that the delivery of food by air is not reaching those whom it is meant to reach, and sometimes the food packages are confused with land mines. They tell us in all candour that they are suspicious of cluster bombs.

Other aid agencies make the point that for many years, not just in recent weeks, the Taliban's harassments, their looting and seizing of trucks, their objection to women working for the aid agencies even as they bring succour, and their threatening with execution people who use telephones to give their appraisal of the situation, do not make it easy for the Government or those involved in the coalition to deliver the essential humanitarian aid—food, medicine and the rest—that we are determined to deliver. It is precisely the humanitarian crisis that convinces me that our diplomatic, military and intelligence activities simply have to succeed. They cannot be seen to fail.

The efforts against terrorism and the provision of proper humanitarian relief rely on the possession of at least one other airport or some other secure method of bringing vital supplies to at least substantial parts of Afghanistan. That would be an enormous success story. I accept that we would have to work with the Northern Alliance to achieve it, but if we could take the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif we could open vital supply routes into Afghanistan. That does mean force, but in the circumstances, consistent with every effort to ensure that civilians are protected, it is not an ignoble objective. I sincerely believe that it is the only choice.

Beyond that—on this, I conclude, Mr. Deputy Speaker—we look forward—