International Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 4th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 9:45 pm, 4th October 2001

My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I nearly always agree with what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says but when he said that all we had had were two short debates I had to disagree with regard to today's debate. If the noble Lord considers that this is a short debate, I should hate to think what he considers a long one. However, more seriously, as I say, I thank those who took part in the debate. I wish to make a couple of preliminary points in that regard.

First, on behalf of the House, I wish the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, well. He made it to the House, which was bravery in itself. We hope that he will be back in his place soon. I should not let the moment pass without congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, on his first appearance on the Front Bench opposite in a new guise. His speech was interesting and full of good points that we took on board. I congratulate him on his new post.

I should also thank and congratulate the four maiden speakers tonight. All four of them, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, and the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Temple-Morris and Lord Ouseley, spoke with huge experience and expertise. I tried to add up the number of years that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, and the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Temple-Morris, had spent in another place. I could not calculate the total for the three of them, but it must be close to 100 years. All three have tremendous experience of the other place and of government. Their remarks were challenging and of great value. We look forward to hearing all three of them speak again. The noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, does not have previous experience of Parliament but he has enormous experience in the race relations and other fields where he has performed admirably for many years. We look forward to him playing an important part in our debates.

In order that noble Lords may not be too scared I should say that I do not intend for a moment to attempt to answer all or even most of the questions that were put. I do not intend to answer them orally. Many of the questions that were asked by, for example, the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, my noble friend Lord Turnberg and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to mention just four, were important. It would be foolish to try to answer them at this time of night. I shall write to them in the normal way.

A little over three weeks ago we all witnessed the appalling act of terrorism where four civilian airliners became flying bombs in the hands of quite brutal and ruthless men. As we know, three of them crashed into their targets in New York and Washington but the fourth came down in a field in Pennsylvania after some of the hostages, with true heroism, fought back and almost certainly, as has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who was not far away in Washington at the time, they saved the lives of many more innocent human beings and in doing so, of course, sacrificed their own lives. If that is not a good example of true heroism I do not know what is.

It was not just America's tragedy; it represented one of the worst losses of British lives since World War II. That, together with our strong historical and enduring friendship with the United States--our closest ally--means that we have an obligation to play a leading role in responding to these appalling acts. So we now share the resolve and determination both to ensure that such events should not be allowed to occur again and that those responsible for them should be brought to account. No one in this House is in any doubt that we are fully committed to those goals.

The lack of any immediate response by the United States should not be taken by this House or by the world to indicate that there is any lack of resolve. This is a complex crisis and we are confronting a dangerous and ruthless enemy, closely linked, as we have heard today, to organised crime, to illegal arms trafficking, to money laundering on a large scale and to the movement of illicit and lethal drugs. That does not lend itself to quick or simple solutions and it would be grossly irresponsible to suggest that such options exist. It would be equally irresponsible to suggest that a narrow military action would be appropriate.

A proportionate and measured response takes time. The House has already paid due tribute to the restrained, dignified and responsible way in which the American Administration and its people have acted since 11th September.

The attacks on America have brought home once again the degree of mutual dependency in today's world. The global community must now turn that unity to its advantage and as a force for good. That means that the machinery of terror must be destroyed and greater understanding must be fostered between nations and faiths. It means further working together to tackle injustice and poverty. In all those issues, our national self-interest is inextricably linked with the mutual interests of countries around the world. They are one and the same.

Our own response to the events of a few weeks ago is being taken forward on a number of interrelated fronts: diplomacy and intelligence, as well as economic and military assets, will all have a vital role to play. Earlier my noble friend Lady Symons spoke of our role in building international co-operation for the fight against terrorism in partnership with the United Nations, the European Union, NATO and many countries around the world. The House has been generous in its praise from all sides in regard to the Prime Minister's leading role in forming this coalition. That is credit well given. The Prime Minister has been tireless in his efforts to build international support and to establish a broad international coalition.

One of the most striking developments over the past three weeks has been the way in which countries that have had their conflicts, wars both ancient and modern, have now come together to support joint action against this common evil. These include Arab leaders and those from other Muslim countries who understand that this is an argument with terrorism and not with Islam. The point is that these acts represent an appalling violation of the true values and humane ideals of Islam. It is a point which cannot be made strongly enough or often enough. I think that we were fortunate to hear in today's debate my noble friends Lord Ahmed and Lady Uddin make that point as strongly as it is possible to do.

Here at home, many people are deeply concerned about the prospect of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom; in particular, the spectre of attacks involving weapons of mass destruction, especially chemical or biological agents, looms large. Of course we must always take such threats extremely seriously. Any responsible government would do so. But I wish to emphasise to the House once again that there is no evidence of a specific threat against this country. It is important that people should remain vigilant, just as they did when responding to the threat from Irish terrorism. However, there is no reason why people should not carry on their daily business as normal. Indeed, there is every reason why they should.

The possibility of such attacks has existed for many years. For more than a decade we know, for example, that the Iraqi regime was prepared to use chemical weapons against its own citizens. Saddam Hussein's immediate response to the events of 11th September did no more than remind us once again of his total disregard for all human life other than his own. The House will recall--it has been referred to already--that the ruthless and indiscriminate nature of mass terrorism was demonstrated when sarin gas was released in the Tokyo metro six years ago in March 1995.

I can tell the House that cross-government contingency plans are in place to deal with these threats. I shall not comment on the details of our plans, but they are wide-ranging and are exercised regularly. The police, fire brigade and ambulance services stand in the front line of the fight against terrorism, just as they did so bravely in New York. The health service would be responsible for managing the results of any attack. Local government would have an important role in marshalling resources. All the agencies would work together to ensure that we are as ready as we can be to face any threats.

Industry, too, has an important part to play. We should not overlook the prompt action taken by the airline industry to enhance the security of aircraft and passengers. They are not alone in their response. Increasingly the greater awareness of the threat of terrorism produced by these events is turning not to fear but to action to ensure that vital infrastructure and services are protected. The Government's review of airport security is wide-ranging and is being conducted in full consultation with the United States authorities.

Noble Lords asked questions about the aviation industry. In the light of the severe repercussions for the global aviation industry, governments may well be asked to provide financial or other assistance to help airlines to cope with the crisis. We are monitoring that situation closely to ensure that any assistance offered does not place UK airlines at a competitive disadvantage.

Just as important is the determination of every citizen not to be intimidated by the ruthless acts of the terrorist. As has been said in this debate, the greatest victory that we could give to our enemies would be to allow our way of life to be undermined by terrorism. This House has shown today that it believes that we are and will remain a democratic, free and diverse country, not divided by race or creed.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford made three specific suggestions in relation to his proud city. The right reverend Prelate's personal commitment and work for inter-faith understanding is a matter of public record and admiration. Of course, the Government will consider his imaginative suggestions sympathetically. I or my noble friend Lady Symons will write to him soon.

When the Cold War ended 12 years or so ago, we recognised what that represented. It was a revolution in the nature of international affairs. We no longer face that immediate threat of world war and the possibility of massive nuclear destruction. We knew that the future threats to international stability were likely to come from ethnic and religious conflicts, population and environmental pressures, competition for scarce resources, drugs, crime and, of course, terrorism.

Here in this country we accepted that the world had changed and that we needed to change as well. That assumption formed the basis of this Government's Strategic Defence Review, designed to ensure that our Armed Forces were restructured and re-equipped to operate and succeed in this quite new and challenging environment. We believe that events thus far have shown that we were right. The past decade has witnessed terrible ethnic conflicts, particularly in the Balkans. We have seen vicious internal conflict in Sierra Leone, for example, driven by competition to control the diamond fields, and in East Timor.

The process of implementing the defence review is still under way. We shall, of course, scrutinise recent events very closely to see whether lessons are to be learnt there. However, since we are already seeing the fruits from the Strategic Defence Review, we do not at present envisage the need for a further major defence review.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, properly asked about the purpose and extent of any defence review. The best way in which I can answer him is to refer to the comments of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who said on Tuesday that we should be looking again at how we organise our defence. He said that this will not be a new strategic defence review but an opportunity if necessary to rebalance our existing efforts. He also said that we must have the right concepts, the right forces and the right capabilities to meet the additional challenges that we face from international terrorism conducted on this scale.

Some 2,000 British troops are, as we speak, returning from Macedonia, where, as part of Task Force Harvest, they have successfully completed their difficult mission to collect weapons from the National Liberation Army. Of course we wait for the final completion of the ongoing constitutional process in the Macedonian Parliament, but already that country looks to be more stable and peaceful than it did earlier this summer. That is a great credit to our British troops. Again, the Government were grateful for the support that we received from the Opposition parties for that expedition.

We believe that acting in this manner, sometimes in concert with our allies and sometimes by our own independent efforts, has materially added to the stability and prosperity of the international community. It is that sense of common values, common goals, and common action that the terrorists are seeking to challenge and destroy. We are now faced with a new and dangerous situation. While we accept that our response must be made up from a diverse range of efforts acting together, there is a high likelihood of it involving military action by UK Armed Forces acting in concert with our allies and our American friends.

As the Prime Minister has emphasised, any such action will be proportionate. It will be carefully targeted at the military infrastructure of bin Laden's terrorists and at the military hardware, funding and support of the Taliban regime that harbours and--this expression will be familiar to lawyers--aids and abets them. The Prime Minister made it clear that we will do what we humanly can to avoid civilian casualties and that the humanitarian response must be every bit as well planned and as thorough as the military response.

Of course we understand the need to ensure that our efforts against terrorism are correctly targeted. However, there is compelling and incontrovertible evidence of the involvement of Osama bin Laden. The trail to bin Laden leads unambiguously back to Afghanistan and the Taliban regime. Two UN Security Council resolutions require the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. There can be no negotiation about that. The first and most immediate priority is to bring him and his associates to account. We call, even at this late hour, on the Taliban to comply with the will of the UN and the whole international community. Otherwise, the regime must be prepared to face the consequences.

Those responsible for the acts of 11th September are not people who can be reasoned with. They are cold-blooded fanatics who despise dialogue and democratic procedures as signs of weakness and decay. I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in particular, for his illuminating speech. He has deep experience of the evil of terrorism. Those people have proved beyond all doubt that human life means precisely nothing to them. Lives--even their own--are expendable and they are willing to use innocent people as bombs. That is why we must accept the need to act with absolute firmness and not fall prey to the delusion that the threat can simply be talked away.

As noble Lords know very well--it is often said in this House--the United Kingdom is privileged to have the finest Armed Forces in the world. It so happens--noble Lords also know this--that we have some 20,000 members of our Armed Forces already in the Gulf region as part of exercise Saif Sareea 2, which is our long-planned joint exercise with Oman. That effort includes the "Illustrious" carrier group, 3 Commando Brigade, five squadrons of Challenger II tanks, some 50 fast jet aircraft and many other force elements. They are demonstrating our support for our friends in the Gulf as well as honing their operational skills. However, they are also available for other contingencies, should they be required.

The Taliban will be alive to the real potential of that powerful force. Its mere presence--and that of the build-up of a powerful US force in the Gulf region--will have sent a clear message to the Taliban about our capabilities. There are signs that the firm international response is already having an effect. Dissent, disputes and disharmony are surfacing within the regime as the pressure of international isolation bears down.

However, it is worth repeating--as has been said in this debate--that the people of Afghanistan are of course not our enemy. They, too, are the victims of the Taliban. Years of war, famine and neglect have reduced them to the state of desperation so well described by noble Lords today. We must also mobilise against that evil. That is why, in addition to building the international coalition against terrorism, we are leading international action to address the growing humanitarian crisis faced by the Afghan people. We have provided £36 million extra in support since 11th September on top of the £35 million provided since 1997. As the House knows, the first shipment of 400 tents arrived in Iran yesterday and more are on their way.

Moreover, the belief that terrorism can be defeated only by armed force is as wrong as the belief that it can be defeated without ever using military force. Terrorists indulge in criminal acts and we must have the legal framework in place to deal with them and their crimes. Earlier this week, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out the new measures that we intend to take to ensure that no bank or financial institution, national or international, will be able to offer a hiding place for terrorist money without fear of prosecution.

Much discussion has taken place today about measures that may be taken by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to deal with terrorism. I take this opportunity to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, for his contribution today. It was a masterful speech setting out his experience over many years of reporting and assisting the Government to get the Terrorism Act 2000 about right. His compliment to the Act is of great importance to us; we think that we got it right and we want to ensure that it is actually working to deal with the present threat.

Many noble Lords are concerned that we may not have been tough enough on those who, it could be argued, abuse our hospitality. They may well be right, and we are at present carefully considering what steps may be appropriate, but we will always bear in mind the fundamental liberties that are so important to the British people. The biggest and most fundamental of all freedoms is the freedom to live in peace and without fear--something that may, perhaps, have been a little forgotten during the course of the past 20 or 25 years.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, properly asked some questions about the legislation; I shall briefly try to answer him. Will the legislation be new or amending? Some will involve amendments; some will be new. When will it appear? At present, we believe in early November, but that is yet to be finalised. He will not be surprised to hear that my answer to his third question about sunset clauses is that no decisions have yet been reached.

I shall not go into any more detail about that legislation. It will come before the House in the normal way and, no doubt, the House will consider it with its usual critical faculties fully at work. But these are special times and it is important that the House bears that in mind when considering these matters.

The evil of international terrorism urgently needs to be confronted and defeated. If there was any doubt of that prior to 11th September, there cannot be any now. We need to confront it together because it potentially threatens us all. As has been said, it will not be quick and it will not be easy. But this country is determined to play a leading role in that response. Let me assure the House that the Government are working endlessly and hard both nationally and internationally to that end. In doing so, we will take the necessary action to protect our people and our interests both at home and abroad.