Coalition Against International Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:43 pm on 1st November 2001.

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Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North 5:43 pm, 1st November 2001

I want to deal with some of the criticisms of the coalition's actions in Afghanistan. In doing so, I do not suggest that people do not have genuine and heartfelt concerns about what is going on—they have, and they deserve to be answered. I shall begin the task of answering them in the short time available to me.

The first criticism of the coalition's actions relates to the very basis of the action in Afghanistan. Shortly after the events of 11 September, the chairman of Charter 88 wrote:

"Declaring 'war' on terrorism is the worst possible response . . . True security will come from international co-operation based on equality, justice and the rule of law, through which conflicts can be resolved by peaceful means."

I do not know whether, seven weeks on, Mr. Alexander still holds that view, but it is profoundly wrong. The fact is that al-Qaeda poses a clear and present danger to us. What it did on 11 September—there now seems to be no dispute about its involvement—is, by its own account, part of an on-going terrorist campaign, and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan have given succour to al-Qaeda. The Taliban were given an ultimatum to deliver bin Laden, but they refused, hence the military action. To think that we can deal with such groups through

"international co-operation based on equality, justice and the rule of law" is to misunderstand what we are up against. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on Tuesday:

"We have a group of people in Afghanistan who are sworn enemies of everything the civilised world stands for, who have killed once on a vast scale and will kill again unless stopped. They can't be negotiated with."

Far from undermining the rule of law, as Mr. Alexander suggested, our action is in accordance with it. Article 51 of the United Nations charter gives nations an inherent right to individual or collective self-defence in the event of an armed attack; that right runs alongside the right of self-defence in customary international law.

There can be no question, in this instance, but that there was an armed attack. The response of the UN Security Council in 1998 to the east African embassy bombings, and on 12 September this year in Security Council resolution 1368, recognised that states have duties to suppress acts of international terrorism and that that is essential to the maintenance of international peace and security. Most significantly, UN Security Council resolution 1373 was passed on 28 September; in it, the council, acting under chapter VII of the charter, imposes on states duties to refrain from supporting terrorists, to deny them safe havens, to prevent them from using their territories and to bring them to justice. Afghanistan is therefore clearly in breach of international law. Far from taking the law into its own hands—an accusation made by Mr. Alexander—the international coalition is acting to uphold it.

Another fallacy propounded by the critics concerns the means. Even if, the argument runs in its simplest form, we must act against terrorism, we should not bomb Afghanistan. I have already said that the action against Afghanistan is both necessary and legal. Some critics of the bombing seem to be suggesting that the coalition is somehow trying to colonise Afghanistan; others that the bombing is targeting Afghan civilians; and others that it is creating a humanitarian crisis. None of those strands of criticism is valid. Given the history of the Afghan wars in the 19th century and the Russian invasion in the last century, to carry out the first charge would be extremely foolish. The aim is to remove the Taliban regime with a view to allowing all Afghans to retake control of their country.

The bombing is certainly not targeting civilians. As in the Kosovo campaign, the attacks have aimed, first, to destroy air cover and air defence; secondly, to interdict, as far as possible, the operation of command and control facilities; and, thirdly, to attack military camps, installations and forces. All that is perfectly proper; it is necessary and proportionate under the UN charter's right to act in self-defence. It is necessary to prevent a repetition of armed attack and is proportionate as a means of achieving that end. It is also in conformity with the humanitarian laws of war, most authoritatively set out in the Geneva conventions and protocols.

The 1977 first protocol puts the matter starkly:

"The civilian population, as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack."

The Geneva protocols are located in the real world and recognise that there may be incidental loss of civilian life. The 1977 first protocol therefore prohibits attacks, which may be expected to cause civilian loss, when that would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. There have been, and will be, civilian casualties in this type of conflict, which can only be a matter of very profound regret. No one who is a parent can fail to be moved by photographs of children injured and killed in such conflicts.

I wish to make two points. First, the number of strikes that have gone completely astray—as opposed to falling just outside the target—is small. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in opening the debate this afternoon, we cannot accept Taliban claims of numerous civilian casualties. I commend to the House the article in The Times this morning by the BBC correspondent, Simon Ingram. He visited a bombed building in Kandahar and wrote:

"And yet there were things that didn't fit. Where were the wounded or the bodies? Why had the building been targeted in the first place?"

It had been claimed that 15 people had been killed and 20 injured. In his account he points out that one building bombed was occupied by the Taliban religious police and that another bombed building was a short distance from four parked Taliban tanks.

The Geneva protocol makes it clear that states such as Afghanistan must not put civilians in that sort of position. Civilians must not be used as shields. Moreover, article 58 provides that parties must remove civilians from the vicinity of military objectives and avoid locating military objects, such as the tanks that Mr. Ingram saw, in populated areas.