International Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:16 pm on 18th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:16 pm, 18th October 2001

My Lords, five weeks after the carnage in New York and Washington I again repeat from these Benches our full endorsement of what we understand to be the Government's high purposes and the policy of standing shoulder to shoulder with our American allies and the whole coalition of nations, which I believe now numbers up to 36. We give this endorsement and support not just for tactical reasons but because we believe that that policy and direction are right and just and are the way to peace and to stopping the perpetrators killing again, which they almost certainly will do unless they are stopped.

Nevertheless, I suggest that our support justifies putting a number of questions where perhaps greater clarity and reassurance are needed and asking the Government to extend their thoughts a little into the future about how the scene will shape itself. First, the immediate military objectives are set out very clearly. The Foreign Secretary's paper which was placed in the Library of the other place outlines without any difficulty or blurring the immediate objectives: to destroy the Taliban infrastructure, get the troops on the ground and then, presumably, surround and corner Osama bin Laden and his odious and evil crew. Those are military objectives which we understand. They will not be easy but they are clearly definable.

But we come to the wider objectives in the Foreign Secretary's paper which the noble Baroness has also mentioned. As to those, it is perhaps time to explore a little how we are to advance towards them. The wider objectives are fairly bold rhetoric; they speak of eliminating the threat of terrorism--the noble Baroness repeated that phrase--and changing the entire climate in which terrorism is conducted. They are very big ambitions. We certainly welcome what has been proposed so far, in particular the Government's measures to cut off the lifeline of funds to terrorist operations, where they can be identified--that is not easy--and the efforts of other members of the coalition and the European Union package which has been agreed. I am not sure that it adds all that much to what nations are agreeing by international co-ordination, but the general direction is welcome.

But one must ask: what are the limits of the campaign and at which terrorism is one to begin to aim? We have spoken a great deal about Al'Qaeda. That seems to be Mr bin Laden's organisation which he manipulates. The world is full of other networks of organisations. We have the Tamil Tigers who are said to be financed in part from London. I was reminded only yesterday by the Sri Lankan High Commissioner that, in the past five years, of the 250 suicide bombers who have assassinated people, 163 have been Tamil Tigers. Of course, many Tamils are peaceful, but these were the dedicated terrorists.

What do we say about that? What do we say about Al-Gama'at Al-Islamiya, Hezbollah, the Hamas, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, Abu Nidal, ETA, Mujaheddin e Khalq or the Colombian Marxist guerrillas, all of whom are highly committed to assignation, killing and terror of the most brutal and poisonous kind?

The noble Baroness mentioned the news from America about anthrax. I am the first to concede that we do not know the source. It may be exaggerated. It may be inside America, although high authorities in America are already pointing to Iraq as a country which has the facility to produce the higher-grade anthrax which is causing the scares. We need to be kept up to date on that in case our assumption that it is local is too complacent.

Above all, we need to think about our own back yard. By that I refer to the terrorism that has bedevilled Northern Ireland for many years. We on this side of the House very much want the peace process to work. However, the lesson of Northern Ireland from 20 years ago when I had the privilege of serving there--it is a lesson that echoes down to today--is that peace processes work only if at the same time terrorism is under constant assault. It must be a twin-track process. That applies as much in the Middle East as in Northern Ireland.

On Tuesday, some of us felt that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, had difficulty in grasping this central point; that one cannot proceed to negotiate with those who are still half committed to terror and that terrorist extremism can always undermine the processes of reconciliation. It did in the early 1970s when I was involved, and it could again today if we are not careful. We are of course at a very delicate moment in the Northern Ireland scene. We must be absolutely firm and clear-sighted. My noble friend Lady Park intervened with a devastating comment, reminding us that the bloodstained killers of ETA and the equally bloodstained Colombian guerrillas are apparently in association and have connections with part of IRA/Sinn Fein. We must be absolutely frank and open about that if we want to see these people stay at the table together and not pull away in a swirl of mistrust, as has happened in the past. Until that is fully understood, the peace process in Northern Ireland will not fully go forward as it should.

We need a firm and clear-sighted view from Ministers and from the Government about what is terrorism and what is not if the full stand of the Government, which we totally support, against terrorism worldwide is to be rounded out and given full validity.

My second question concerns the next stage in the politics of Afghanistan and the changes in the Afghan leadership. I was pleased to hear that the excellent Mr Robert Cooper is turning his considerable brain to this matter. He will have his work cut out because the complexities are enormous. I suppose that question number one is: What about the Northern Alliance? Has it within the past 48 hours become acceptable in a way that it was not before? Suddenly, the news from Washington seems to have changed in its favour. Is it right? What do we think of its offer for a month's delay before it attempts to march on Kabul? Is that some kind of arrangement between the Northern Alliance and Washington? Is that wise? I do not know. The experts say that "General Winter" will sweep in and prevent anyone marching anywhere in a few week's time. Is there a danger that an initiative is about to be lost; that winter will entrench the Taliban and will by the spring leave it in a more powerful position instead of in a weaker one?

Is there a means by which the allies and the coalition can find a third way--a middle way--between what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in a very interesting article, described as "intervention and indifference"? Is there a way between those two? Last time indifference led to total tragedy. In past times too much intervention and the insertion of puppet rulers have also led to tragedy. Is there a middle way between them? Can we hear more thoughts from the Government on that matter?

Who and what will form the broad-based coalition that will not be quite Northern Alliance and not totally Taliban and will not cause too much trouble in Pakistan and somehow will satisfy the Iranians in Tehran? How will that be sorted out? Have UK Ministers met the ex-king, Mohammed Zahir Shah? I read that the foreign ministers of Italy and France and a number of other countries have met him in Rome and discussed issues with him. In particular, they have discussed the development of the Supreme Council of National Unity. That may be the nexus, the formation point, for this future broad-based government. We need to know whether our Ministers have been included or excluded from that.

We have heard much about the important role of the UN. But what about the idea of a UN peace-keeping force? It is not one that immediately attracts me, but the suggestion has been around that it should be led by Muslim countries, or possibly by Turkey--part Muslim, part Christian--and that there is a role for such a force. I know that Turkey is obviously a key player in that. I am glad that the Foreign Secretary has been there overnight, seeking to keep Turkey well within the coalition because obviously it has a crucial role to play.

A host of other issues have come swirling up. I agree with the noble Baroness that they should not be directly confused with 11th September and the need to corner those who did that frightful thing. Nevertheless, they should not be neglected as they are related to the broader underlying sentiments in the crisis. There is the appalling situation in Israel as tit-for-tat killing continues. I join the noble Baroness and others in pleading and urging on Israel, despite the terrible provocation that it has had, maximum restraint. I hope that we go back not only to the Mitchell recommendations but to the Barak proposals. They went a long way toward meeting the aspirations of the Palestinian people. I still do not understand why Mr Arafat and his colleagues turned them down so flatly. It would have been better if we had been able somehow to build on those.

But this is the oldest argument in the world and there is no time for it now. We know the feelings of the two sides. We share the idea of a guaranteed Palestinian state, but we also share and need to repeat the commitment of the guarantee for the continued existence of Israel and not its destruction, in which too many Palestinians are brought up to believe.

This stage in the campaign is inevitably a time when there are a few waverers and a little despondency begins to creep around. I have heard that wavering from all political parties. I have even heard one or two discordant voices from the right reverend Prelates' Bench. I certainly have heard it from the councils of the European Union where there appear to be sharply different views on the virtues of the present policy.

From our point of view the military objectives are clear. We support the Government in that. We agree with the Prime Minister that the testing time is clearly to come. People say that we are losing the propaganda war. That is a wrong phrase because it implies that what we have to say is propaganda. It is not. We have a message of truth and good intent. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that while people talk of terrorist networks there is a much bigger network of millions of selfless individuals, voluntary groups, agencies, organisations and well-intentioned governments, Christian, Muslim and secular, all of whom are determined to use the vast resources of the capitalist world--that is where the wealth lies--to bring food, medicine, education, skills and, in the longer-term, better governance and better life. That is what we are trying to bring to the Afghan people and indeed to the poor people of the world generally.

Are those western values? I prefer to call them the values of common humanity. Compared with the repression, intolerance, hate, murder and depravity of those who have distorted the good name of Islam and seized it for terrorist purposes, I have no hesitation in saying that those values of common humanity are superior. If we lose faith in that, we lose everything. But if we proclaim it, then there is a chance that we shall begin to win over hearts and minds more effectively than in the past. However, to do so we need--I shall repeat the words that have been used by the noble Baroness--

"the utmost resolve to see the matters through to the end".

Those were also the words used by the Prime Minister. We want him very much indeed to mean them.