Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 7:36 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset 7:36 pm, 15th May 2007

I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on bringing this subject before the House today. I am sure that when they took that decision, they did not expect to see such a consensus across the Chamber, or a Government amendment very similar in its wording to the original motion.

I have a dilemma—very much on the same lines as that of my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind. In my capacity as chairman of the defence committee of the European Security and Defence Assembly of the Western European Union, I have seen the effect of parliamentary approval on the deployment of the forces of a number of our European partners. What concerns me is that in seeking democratic legitimacy for what our armed forces do, we should not allow ourselves to get into a situation where we reduce the flexibility and timely deployment of those forces, or introduce national caveats into our deployment within multinational force deployments.

Mention has been made—I am not going to make a great deal of it—of the Iraq vote in this House. I participated in the debates on Iraq and voted basically against the Iraq invasion, although—for reasons that my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke put so succinctly—I abstained on the final vote because we were already effectively at war. Our troops were massed on the Kuwait border ready for the invasion and I felt that there was no reason to give comfort to Saddam Hussein by displaying a number of MPs who were not with our troops on that occasion. As I have pointed out several times previously, I also had a personal reason in that my daughter, a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was one of the troops on the border, so she was part of the invasion force.

On occasions, the case for military conflict is clear and there is a consensus. A number of hon. Members have mentioned that this evening. I believe that there was a consensus in 1939, for example, or over the Falklands. On other occasions, however, there is not a consensus and the case is not clear. Suez would be the most obvious post-war example. There are also occasions involving threats to sovereign government on which, particularly in this post-colonial era, we have deployed troops in places such as Cyprus, Kenya and Rhodesia for just those reasons.

The world has changed in a number of ways, however. The world of state-on-state conflict is no longer with us. It might come back—who knows?—and we might have to invoke our various article 5 responses. I am referring to article 5 of the Washington treaty and article 5 of the modified Brussels treaty. It is more likely, however, that we shall be involved in military missions under the cover of a United Nations resolution, although such resolutions can be somewhat dubiously interpreted on occasions. I feel that that is what happened with Iraq.

It is also more likely that we shall be involved in the broader tasks that were defined in 1992 as the Petersberg tasks—humanitarian, rescue and peacekeeping tasks, and tasks involving combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking. In Europe, those tasks are now vested in the EU Council, as well as in NATO. I mention them here because it is rare in modern times for us to deploy our troops outside the framework of an international organisation. We have been involved with NATO in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and with the EU in Bosnia and Macedonia. We are not involved in any major United Nations operations at the moment, but we could have been involved in the recent or ongoing ones in Lebanon and the Congo.

There are lessons to be learned from international comparisons, and I want to examine how some of our European neighbours approach the subject of parliamentary approval. In Belgium, article 167 of the constitution stipulates:

"The King manages international relations...commands the armed forces, and determines the state of war and the cessation of hostilities. He notifies the Chambers as soon as State interests and security permit and he adds those messages deemed appropriate."

As national defence is a matter for the Executive, parliamentary scrutiny is exercised retrospectively.

That contrasts with Denmark, where, according to paragraph 19(3) of the Danish Constitutional Act, the Danish Parliament appoints a foreign policy committee from among its Members, which the Government consult before making any decision of major importance to foreign policy. The Government are, moreover, subject to the same general and specific parliamentary control and possible sanctions as in all other areas.

In Spain, article 63 of the constitution states:

"It is incumbent on the King, after authorisation by the Parliament, to declare war and make peace."

Article 64 provides that all acts by the King shall be countersigned by the Prime Minister, so it can fairly be stated that this responsibility rests with the Head of Government, who

"directs domestic and foreign policy, civil and military administration, and the defence of the state", as provided by article 97.

France is an interesting case. Article 35 of the constitution—the 1958 constitution; France has had quite a few in recent years—states:

"A declaration of war shall be authorised by Parliament".

There has not been a declaration of war since 1939, however. More appropriately—or at least, the late General de Gaulle thought it more appropriate—article 16 states:

"Where the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the Nation, the integrity of its territory or the fulfilment of its international commitments are under serious and immediate threat, and where the proper functioning of the constitutional public authorities is interrupted, the President of the Republic shall take the measures required by these circumstances, after formally consulting the Prime Minister, the Presidents of the assemblies and the Constitutional Council. He shall inform the Nation of these measures in a message."

There might be a lesson to be learned from Luxembourg. According to article 37 of the constitution of the Grand Duchy,

"the Grand Duke commands the armed force; he declares war and the cessation of hostilities after having been authorised by a vote in the Chamber taken under the conditions laid down in Article 114(5)".

The Netherlands changed their provisions in July 2000 with the inclusion of a new article in their constitution. Article 100 states:

"The Government shall provide Parliament with information in advance on the posting or making available of the armed forces for the maintenance or promotion of the international legal order, including information on the posting or making available of the armed forces for the provision of humanitarian assistance in the case of armed conflict."

The Dutch provisions are now the closest to the German provisions, which are considered within NATO to be something of a hindrance to the deployment of armed forces.

I shall come to Germany in a moment, but first I want to consider the case of Sweden, because there might be some lessons to be learned there. Sweden's Instrument of Government states that

"a state of war may not be declared without the consent of the Riksdag"— that is the Swedish Parliament

"other than in the event of an attack upon the Realm".

The basic provisions are as follows:

"The Government may commit the Realm's armed forces, or any part of them, to battle in order to repel an armed attack upon the Realm. Swedish armed forces may otherwise be committed to battle or despatched abroad only provided:

1. the Riksdag consents thereto;

2. such commitment is permitted under an act of law which sets out the pre-requisites for such action;

3. a commitment to take such action follows from an international agreement or obligation which has been approved by the Riksdag."

I want to finish my comparison by considering the case of Germany, because it forms an essential part of the debate in terms of putting the matter into context and perhaps of trying not to go where Germany has gone. It is also essential to consider this issue in the context of Germany's history. It was not until 1969 that Germany had an army, following the reconstitution of the Bundeswehr. We should also remind ourselves that there are German forces in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. Also, last year, the first German-led military mission was deployed to the Congo—it commanded the EUFOR mission that was deployed there for about four months—and, for the first six months of this year, one of the two EU battle groups on call is under German command and dominated by German forces.

The experience of Germany highlights the problems associated with the principle of parliamentary approval. Before each deployment, there is a lengthy debate in the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, and they will decide whether German forces will be deployed, in what operations they will be involved, and what the terms of engagement will be. They also lay down any caveats relating to their forces' operation in the context of a multinational force. They also lay down the conditions that their troops should enjoy. Having visited German troops in a number of theatres, I remember that one provision is that no German soldier should be deployed anywhere in the world unless he has access to exactly the same medical facilities that he would have if he were living at home in Germany. That means that they have some of the most fantastic military field hospitals of any armed forces in the world.

Consequently, in Afghanistan, the German armed forces operate outside the main areas of conflict. They have an excellent field hospital in Kabul and are involved in provincial reconstruction in the northern, peaceful areas of the country. In the Congo mission, although the operation commander was German, and the largest number of troops deployed were German, no German combat troops were involved—the only combat troops were Spanish and French—despite the Bundeswehr having excellent infantry forces, very good equipment and very good armoured vehicles. They did, however, have two marvellous field hospitals, one in Kinshasa and one in Libreville.

We must accept the reality of today. Within NATO, we have a number of rapid reaction commitments, beyond our article 5 commitments. In a year or so, we will command an EU battle group, which must respond within 15 days—five days to a decision and 10 days to a deployment. Recently, in Berlin, I asked both the chairman of the Bundestag's defence committee and the Defence Minister whether, given Germany's previous experience of taking three months to decide whether to deploy to the Congo, that was possible. The answer that I received was along the lines of, "We think it'll be all right on the night."

I agree wholeheartedly with the principle in the motion, but it must not impede or inhibit our ability to defend our country or meet our international obligations. We must have careful definitions of peacekeeping and peacemaking. Let us remember that the initial NATO deployment to Afghanistan was as the international security assistance force, whose mission was provincial reconstruction—a fairly innocent-sounding mission, and it was fairly innocent to start with. Our troops who are now committed in the southern part of that country, however, are in anything but an innocent deployment.

We cannot predict today what tomorrow's conflicts will be, but Parliament must set down our criteria for rapid deployment, which we must never frustrate. On national caveats, if different Parliaments lay down different criteria for their troops to be deployed in multinational missions, that can lead to enormous grievances and problems for military commanders. We must give our commanders in the field the tools to do the job. Parliament must be involved at all stages; its involvement must be essential and not an afterthought.

In international missions, scrutiny at an international level, at which parliamentarians from different countries come together to oversee our common security structures, is also important, within the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the WEU European Security and Defence Assembly. We must remind the European Parliament that troops are committed by national Governments. There is no European army, and while troops are national, oversight must be provided by national parliamentarians, not MEPs.

That is the essential part of the motion. If we are to expect our young men and women to lay down their lives, we, as elected representatives of the people of this country, must be able to legitimise their deployment. There are those who still see themselves as subjects of the Crown; I believe that most of my electors see themselves as citizens of a democracy. The Crown prerogative is convenient when immediate actions are required. It should, however, be tempered and controlled. I have reservations about the effectiveness of our armed forces in such circumstances, but I would still support the motion.