Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:49 pm on 26th February 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 11:49 pm, 26th February 2003

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate. With very few exceptions, the contributions have been remarkable for their balanced approach. Where there has been disagreement, it has been courteously and seriously expressed.

It is only right that your Lordships should consider these issues in such depth and at such length. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, that this is a hugely important moment in our history. No one—no government, no country, no people—takes the step of military action lightly. The reality of war is tough and terrible—real danger and real damage, real lives at stake. So I assure my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington that Her Majesty's Government do understand what is involved in a military conflict. But I am also bound to say gently to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that the idea that Britain, the United States or any country is rushing towards war is as offensive as it is wrong. There is no rush to war—not in London and not in Washington either.

But there is no peace either. What is happening now in Iraq, what has been happening in Iraq under Saddam's regime, is not peace. My noble friend Lord Rea said that it was not a failed state. It functions, he said. But he could not claim that it is a state of peace. Brutal murder is not peace. Torture and terror are not peace. Repression and fear are not peace. Saddam's regime is a vile one which puts real lives at stake regularly and often, as my noble friend Lady Ramsay reminded us so eloquently.

Does my noble friend Lord Rea—who is a good man—really think that those talking to him and urging him to ask the Prime Minister not to proceed would not have been debriefed; and that, had they not said what was required of them, the minimum punishment would not have been the removal of the offender's tongue or, even worse, slow death in an iron cage in one of Iraq's prisons? In developing and using weapons of mass destruction, Saddam wants the ability to extend that approach and to extend that violence and brutality to others.

There is a point on which I think virtually all your Lordships can agree. Saddam Hussein runs a cruel and terrible regime. He has inflicted untold suffering on his own people and on some of his neighbours. He still has illegal weapons—despite what my noble friend Lord Stoddart said, I really do believe that to be the case; otherwise, Dr Blix would not be ordering the destruction of the al-Samoud missiles in the way that he is. We also think that the correct way to deal with this issue is through the United Nations if humanly possible. We are also in general agreement that the terms of Resolution 1441 should be upheld.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that Her Majesty's Government have taken no decision on military action. I assure my noble friend Lady Turner and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that there has been no decision for war. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made that clear again yesterday. He said:

"we will work every last minute that we can to reunite the international community and to disarm Iraq through the United Nations".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/2/03; col. 126.]

I thank my noble friend Lord MacKenzie for his powerful words on this issue and value the support of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie.

I believe that the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister yesterday may have been overlooked by some of your Lordships. He has worked tirelessly to deal with this grave matter through the United Nations, and to do so peacefully. He said that again yesterday, and his points were reinforced by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary today. Again, his has been a constant effort to keep this issue within the United Nations and his efforts with his colleagues in the United States have been unceasing.

Some noble Lords have asked: why table a second resolution now; why not set a deadline or support the Franco-German proposal to strengthen the inspections? The problem is not the lack of capacity by the inspectors; it is the lack of will from Saddam Hussein. The inspectors' role is not one of detectives hunting for clues, but one of verifying Iraqi compliance.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, was entirely right, as was my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. The Franco-German proposals will not deliver the assurance that the world needs about Iraq's weapons. They are unrealistic and impractical. They shift the burden of proof from Iraq to the inspectors and they send Saddam Hussein the signal that defiance pays. I remind my noble friend Lord Judd that this is not just the judgment of the British Government. As Dr. Blix said, the principal problem is not the number of inspectors but the active co-operation on the Iraqi side, as we have said many times.

Resolution 1441 said that it was a final opportunity to comply. What does "final" mean if not that this is Saddam Hussein's last chance? Non-compliance with Resolution 1441 is at the heart of the issue. It is the basis of any action, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed out in his customary erudite way.

We all acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne, knows the country better than most. I admire hugely her courage in defending the interests of the Marsh Arabs. The noble Baroness is right, as was the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass and the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Iraq is already in breach of UNSCR 687 and 1441. We are asked to wait for Dr. Blix and Dr. El Baradei to decide, but I remind your Lordships of what Dr. Blix has already said. Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance of the disarmament which was demanded of it. It is his judgment that Iraq has not come to a genuine acceptance about disarmament. Dr. Blix's view is simply not compatible with a view that co-operation has been full, active or immediate, as required by Resolution 1441. It is not a technical issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, so dismissively described it. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that it is not, and it never was, the job of the inspectors to find the smoking gun. It is the job of Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons.

Of course the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is right that there is a peaceful way to resolve the issue. Where I disagree with her, and with my noble friend Lord Brennan, is the implication that this can be done through a process of inspection. In that respect, I believe the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, is right. Inspectors are not there to find the weapons but to verify the completion of the disarmament process. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that it never was their job to do what he describes, nor is it their job to contain the development of weapons of mass destruction.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is right that not all peaceful options have been exhausted, and I hope that I made that clear when I spoke earlier. Saddam Hussein holds the key to a peaceful solution, not the inspectors—not 150 inspectors, not 1,500 inspectors, not in 15 more weeks or 15 more months. Without the active, full and, crucially, the immediate co-operation demanded in UNSCR, the issue simply cannot be solved.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, said that it was done in two years in South Africa. What he did not tell your Lordships is that is was done there by only nine inspectors. He entirely ignored the fact that this is a comparison between two years in South Africa and 12 years already in Iraq.

Some of your Lordships were particularly concerned about what some thought to be the double standard of Israel's failure to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and Iraq's position. We want to see all Security Council resolutions implemented. We acknowledge that in this respect Israel has obligations which are as yet unfulfilled. I hope that I made it clear yesterday in answering questions in your Lordships' House on the Middle East that we believe that the Israeli settlements are illegal and that a security fence is an obstruction to peaceful cohabitation. But if the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, was really arguing that the difference was only a question of US agreement to Chapter 7 procedures, I disagree with her. There are two crucial differentials in the resolutions about Iraq and those about the Arab-Israeli dispute. It is not simply about Iraqi Security Council resolutions being mandatory, although that is not a minor point, as Resolution 687 was a condition of a ceasefire after a conflict sanctioned by the UN. But the second issue is that the Arab-Israeli resolutions call on all sides of the dispute to take action. The truth is that Israel and its neighbours all have obligations still to fulfil.

Other noble Lords had worries about other countries with weapons of mass destruction. I cite in particular the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, and other noble Lords who questioned the position on North Korea. The proliferation of WMD is a huge concern, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear. However, does any noble Lord believe that if Saddam Hussein is not dealt with after 12 years and all the mandatory Security Council resolutions, North Korea will believe the international community is really serious about getting rid of weapons of mass destruction? Is it not far more likely that it will believe that it too can flout the will of the United Nations and the international community with absolute impunity? The activities of countries such as North Korea cannot be an excuse for tolerating what is happening in Iraq; rather, they should be another reason for tackling the issue with courage and determination now.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, in his thoughtful and well-informed contribution, dwelt on the circumstances in which force might be necessary. In particular, he proposed questions about a second UN resolution, a point raised also by the noble Lord, Lord Chan. We expect there to be intensive diplomatic discussions before a vote is taken. We are ready for the propositions on the full text to be examined. Our ambassador to the United Nations has said that he anticipates two weeks of discussions. So we are negotiating, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, argues we should. The UN Security Council should then send Saddam a clear signal of its determination. But we have to stay united.

Last year, Saddam allowed UNMOVIC into Iraq because the council stood firm. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, very strongly on this point. A united council now will give us the best chance of avoiding force later. The council must be prepared to uphold the authority of the UN that Saddam has ignored for far too long. So I agree with my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath. We have to show our resolve in dealing with this issue. Of course the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, was right: clear presentation of the argument is absolutely vital.

A number of noble Lords—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, the noble Lords, Lord Blaker, Lord Hardy of Wath and Lord Phillips of Sudbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford—talked about military action possibly destabilising the whole of the Middle East. I repeat that there has been no decision to launch such action. The Prime Minister has said repeatedly that military action should only ever be a last resort. We have to take many aspects into account when taking any decision to launch such action. That is why we are considering all the options so carefully with our allies. However, Saddam should be in no doubt about our determination to remove the threat of his weapons of mass destruction. Nowhere is that threat higher than in his own region. I remind noble Lords that Resolution 1441 was widely welcomed, including in the region.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble Lords, Lord Sandberg and Lord Phillips, were right to remind us of the risk to stability contingent upon military action. I assure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, as forcefully as I can that these issues are very much in the forefront of our minds. Actually, I do not find it as easy as he suggested to put the argument for action now. I find it very hard because I fully understand what it means in terms of risk to precious lives—British lives, Iraqi lives, to Americans and others in the region. This is not a case of going to war in a moment, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury said. I agree with the right reverend Prelate. Building peace takes a lifetime. But I am bound to say that talk about building trust in relation to the 12 years of a tyrant's deceit and a man who murdered his own son-in-law is rather misplaced.

A number of other noble Lords concentrated on what happens as regards what was described as "winning the peace". The points were raised in particular by the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig and Lord Bramall. As military action cannot be ruled out, it is of course sensible to plan on a contingency basis for what the international community should do in Iraq in the event that Saddam Hussein's regime were removed from power as a result of military action. We are in contact with a number of international players about this. We are not making the content of those contingency talks public.

As regards the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, the UK view is guided by a number of considerations. The territorial integrity of Iraq should be maintained. The Iraqi people themselves, in consultation with the international community, should generate the ideas for the future political arrangements in Iraq. We expect the successor regime to be a significant improvement on the existing one. The UN should be at the centre of any transitional administration in Iraq.

I agree strongly with the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. The government of Iraq is a matter for the people of Iraq. But we believe that the Iraqi people deserve a better government and one based on the rule of law with respect for human rights, economic freedom and for property.

My noble friend Lady Ramsay talked about the massacre of the Shias in southern Iraq and, perhaps more eloquently than most, about the consequences of not taking any action. It was an excellent and moving contribution of the sort that we have come to expect from her. She reminded us of the Prime Minister's contribution to the moral issues at stake. She reminded us of the issues concerning infant mortality, the tens of thousands of dead in the past five years, of others murdered in prisons and those routinely executed.

Reversing all that is much to be desired, as my noble friend Lord Gilbert emphasised. He was in excellent form this evening. All these are important humanitarian issues. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, urged us to be tough on terrorism and tough on the causes of terrorism particularly the terrorism which has its roots in the Israel/Palestine conflict. I agree strongly. I hope that he will agree with me that the Prime Minister has tackled this issue in a forthright and determined way. That issue was also focused on by many other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Sandberg, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford and the noble Lord, Lord Morgan.

The Prime Minister emphasised again yesterday what he described as the vital importance of the Middle East peace process. I emphasised that strongly in my opening remarks. Last week the European Council called for the early implementation of the roadmap. Terror and violence must end. The Prime Minister said,

"I will continue to strive in every way for an even-handed and just approach to the middle east peace process".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/2/03; col. 126.]

I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford that the Prime Minister and the whole Government are committed on that issue.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked me about contributions to UNWRA in Palestine. Twelve million pounds has been dispersed of our annual contribution to the general fund. There is a contribution of £5 million to the 2002 emergency appeal.

Sadly, I disagree with some of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. We certainly did not wait for either the United States or the Israeli Government before going ahead with the January conference on Palestine. We held that conference in the teeth of Israeli opposition given their refusal to allow Palestinian representatives to come to London.

Our position is well understood, as I found when I was in the region recently. But I agree with the noble Earl and with the right reverend Prelate that the prospect of war is a nightmare which I share and I know that I am not alone in that.

Perhaps I may turn to some of the humanitarian contingency planning which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, the noble Lords, Lord Newby, Lord Chan, Lord Clinton-Davis, Lord Howe, Lord Rea, Lord Alton, Lord Vincent, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. We are planning for a range of humanitarian contingencies which includes MoD discussions with DfID on how to minimise the harm to Iraqi people if military action is taken. We are in regular contact with a range of UN humanitarian agencies and we are making detailed contingency plans. We are confident that UN preparations are as good as they can be given the risks and the uncertainties. But we support a leading UN role in response to any humanitarian crisis. We remain committed to helping refugees in need of any humanitarian assistance. We have been supporting Iraqi refugees in western Iran for several years. DfID funding to the UN and other humanitarian agencies includes provision for emergency preparedness for a variety of contingencies across the world. The DfID has provided more than £100 million of bilateral humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people since 1991. I have many more details and will write to all noble Lords concerned.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that we must be alive to the environmental consequences of war, including environmental terrorism of the sort that occurred in Kuwait and the Gulf after 1991. Saddam Hussein has regularly halted Iraqi oil exports to score political points. It is important for my noble friend Lord Stoddart to remember that. One such stoppage last year sacrificed 1.2 billion dollars of humanitarian aid in just one month. It is Saddam Hussein who is doing so much to add to the suffering of his people.

The noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, said that this was a war of cynicism and greed. We do disagree with the United States. It is not a matter of what the noble Lord called "followership". We disagree with the United States on Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, the death penalty, many trade issues and anti-personnel landmines.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that of course America must be questioned, but I was saddened by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour—which majored in the most florid terms on America's shortcomings but mentioned Saddam Hussein's appalling regime only briefly. This is emphatically not a war about oil. The unsupported assertion that it is does no service to sensible debate. One need only read Colin Powell's speech on 29th December—a copy of which I will send the noble Lord.

Others of your Lordships spoke about terrorism. Of course Iraq has a long record of supporting terrorism, including radical Islamic groups, but none of us will draw a direct connection in terms of a relationship between Al'Qaeda and Iraq unless we are sure that such a direct relationship exists. There may be contacts, but I assure the noble Lords, Lord Morgan, Lord Wallace and Lord King of Bridgwater, that I have never drawn that conclusion. Until I see some evidence, I shall not do so.

I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on his points about the territorial integrity of Iraq and Turkish troops.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Uddin that none of us seeks war, but we have to face the possibility that military action may prove necessary. Noble Lords in all parts of the House hope that it will not prove necessary. We hope even at this late moment that conflict can be averted. The Prime Minister has made that clear and I thank all noble Lords who expressed their appreciation of my right honourable friend's role.

The route to peace is clear. The route to peace lies with Saddam. Saddam Hussein has to co-operate with the inspectors, United Nations and international community. He must comply with the requirements that have been placed upon him. All that is clear.

It is clear, too, that Saddam has choices. He can disarm voluntarily. He can leave Iraq peacefully. The noble Lord, Lord King, was right that Saddam Hussein can choose how disarmament is done—whether he does it or the international community does it for him. But Saddam cannot choose about disarmament itself—whether he will or will not disarm. He has no choice about his weapons of mass destruction. He has no choice about disarmament.

I join all your Lordships in hoping that Saddam will choose the path of peace.