Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:08 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 6:08 pm, 15th May 2007

I agree, but my main concern is the impact on our forces in a theatre of war. It is hugely important that they have a clear understanding that, whatever subsequent political events may demonstrate, the legitimacy of their actions on our behalf is not open to question.

Finally, there is sometimes a tendency to assume that there is a straightforward choice: we are either at war or not at war. However, anyone who has been involved in conflict—even indirectly, in my case, or directly, like some of my hon. and gallant Friends—knows that that is not the case; the spectrum of military activity is huge. I am not referring only to peacekeeping or peace enforcement. I offer an example of the difficulties that we shall have to address.

While I was Defence Secretary and then Foreign Secretary, the UN resolutions on no-fly zones in Iraq were enforced. That did not involve conflict on a day-to-day basis—we were not attacking Iraq every day of the week or every week of the year—but Britain and the United States, the two countries militarily involved, had told the Iraqis that if they breached the UN resolutions and attacked our aircraft or were seen in the air in the no-fly zone, we would take military action to stop them. On several occasions, the Iraqis breached the no-fly zone, so British and US jets took to the air and sometimes shot down Iraqi aircraft and attacked Iraqi radar installations. That was not a declaration of war in any interpretation, but it was armed conflict, which is the term used nowadays. There are rarely declarations of war; they have gone out of fashion as declarations, even if the substance is still with us.

Armed conflict took place, but we cannot seriously suggest that between the Iraqis breaching the no-fly zone and the UK taking action to enforce it we should have had to come to the House to ask for approval. That would be an absurd situation. However, such operational problems can easily arise in the real world, so I say to my hon. Friends as well as to the Government that although, sadly, it is necessary to move towards a formalisation of the role of the House and of Parliament as regards the Government's use of what has formerly been the prerogative, it will be enormously difficult to handle unless we are prepared to sacrifice the flexibility that has until now been an asset. It is sad that erosion of trust in the Government has forced us to make such painful choices.