Previous SectionIndexHome Page


3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on recent tragic events in Kosovo.

On Saturday we received reports of a massacre at Racak, south of Pristina. General Drewienkiewicz, the leader of the British team in the Kosovo verification mission, visited the site on Saturday, and I spoke to him that afternoon. General Drewienkiewicz reported that the bodies he saw had mostly been shot in the head or neck in what looked like an execution. Those who had been killed appeared to be of all ages, including grey-haired old men. None of the bodies he saw were wearing uniform. He saw no evidence of fighting, such as spent shell cases.

It is simply not credible that those who were killed were the casualties of a military conflict. The eye-witness accounts of international observers make it only too clear that they were murdered. In any common-sense understanding of the term, this was a war crime. The past decade of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia is all too full of such atrocities. Nevertheless, however hardened we are by familiarity to such scenes, every hon. Member must have been shocked and repelled by the cold and calculated character of this massacre. Several thousand civilians have since been reported to have fled the area. We once again face a potential humanitarian crisis as the result of Serb repression within Kosovo.

Yesterday I spoke with the German, French and Italian Foreign Ministers. I obtained their agreement that our four ambassadors in Belgrade should formally lodge a joint demarche demanding that the officers of the army and police units in Racak last Friday must immediately be removed from duty while these murders are investigated. We also insisted that the International War Crimes Tribunal must be allowed to carry out an investigation in Kosovo.

Last Wednesday I visited the tribunal in The Hague and met Judge Arbour, the chief prosecutor. Both she and Judge MacDonald, the president of the tribunal, expressed warm appreciation of the strong support that the Government have provided to the tribunal in terms of funds, personnel and political commitment. At the time, I repeated our support for the demand of the tribunal for access to Kosovo. Earlier this afternoon, Judge Arbour attempted to cross the border into Kosovo, but was turned back by Serb border forces. Later today, the Security Council will meet in emergency session to consider the events in Kosovo. The British representative will demand that the Security Council makes clear its support for the tribunal--which was set up on the authority of the United Nations--and insists that the tribunal must be allowed access to Kosovo.

If we are to establish peace and stability in Kosovo, it is vital that we escape from the relentless cycle of ethnic atrocity followed by reprisal. Those individuals who are responsible for such murders must personally be brought to justice. That would be the most fitting response to this atrocity, but it would also send a strong message to all officers serving in Kosovo that they will be held to account for any offence that they commit against humanitarian law.

18 Jan 1999 : Column 566

I salute the courage and the commitment of the members of the Kosovo verification mission. They operate in circumstances of real risk, as was demonstrated when a British member of the team was shot at and injured last week. I am pleased to tell the House that he is making a good recovery.

The Kosovo verification mission has made a real contribution to stability in Kosovo, in particular by brokering local ceasefires and negotiating refugee returns. The public attacks on it in Belgrade this weekend seem to forget that only last week the verification mission was instrumental in securing the release of eight Serb hostages. However, the verification mission can succeed only on the basis of the co-operation to which President Milosevic committed Belgrade in the Holbrooke package. We therefore deplore the fact that yesterday Serb security forces entered Racak against representations by the verification mission, and opened fire on the village despite the presence in it of verifiers. We have already protested in Belgrade about that event, and tomorrow Generals Clark and Naumann will be demanding full co-operation with the verification mission.

Those who led the massacre in Racak must bear full responsibility for their actions. Nevertheless, all those who have contributed to the political stalemate in Kosovo must bear their share of responsibility for creating the climate in which the ceasefire has crumbled. The Holbrooke package at the end of last year provided Kosovo with the prospect of real autonomy, including control of its local police force and free and fair elections supervised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. It offered Serbia the opportunity to withdraw from an armed conflict that undermines its economy and isolates it in the world.

A detailed paper has since been produced by the special representatives of the United States and the European Union. It proposes a three-year period in which Kosovo can develop its own autonomous assembly and democratic local communes. That interim period would be followed by a review of the final status of Kosovo. I deeply regret that, three months further on, meaningful talks on that paper have not begun. The fault for that lies on both sides. Despite intensive pressure and repeated mediation, it still has not been possible to get agreement even on the composition of the Kosovo negotiating team. The main obstacle has been the refusal of the Kosovo Liberation Army to take part in any team that includes Dr. Rugova, the elected leader of the Kosovo Albanians.

Over the weekend, I discussed with Madeleine Albright and other colleagues within the Contact Group how we can restore momentum to the political process. We are proposing an early meeting of the Contact Group at the level of political directors, which the United Kingdom will chair.

We have also agreed on the key messages to both sides in this conflict. President Milosevic must be clear that military action last autumn was suspended only because of his agreement to cease fire, to withdraw part of his military units in Kosovo, and to return the rest to barracks. The North Atlantic Council met yesterday and agreed that General Clark and General Naumann, NATO's two most senior generals, should visit Belgrade with a clear message that President Milosevic must comply in full with the agreements he made.

18 Jan 1999 : Column 567

On its part, the Kosovo Liberation Army has committed more breaches of the ceasefire, and until this weekend was responsible for more deaths than the security forces. It must stop undermining the ceasefire and blocking political dialogue. Neighbouring countries, in particular Albania, must be more resolute in halting the flow of weapons, which fuels the conflict.

Neither side can win this war. The Kosovo Liberation Army cannot defeat the Yugoslav Army, and instead of liberating the people of Kosovo can only prolong their suffering. Belgrade cannot end the conflict by atrocities such as we saw this weekend, which will only drive more young men into the ranks of the KLA and swell the ranks of those who demand independence.

The only way in which stability can be restored in Kosovo is through political dialogue. I urge both sides now to get down to meaningful negotiations on the basis of the Contact Group proposals. That is the best way in which the Kosovo Albanians can honour those who died in this appalling massacre, and in which Belgrade can show real regret at the actions of its security forces. That is also the only way in which we will prevent such atrocities recurring.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. The whole House will share the shock and outrage that he expressed at the appalling massacre that took place at Racak on Friday, and will join in his condemnation. It was impossible to witness those scenes on television without being both deeply moved and deeply angered.

We also share the Foreign Secretary's desire for the International War Crimes Tribunal to be allowed to investigate this war crime and to bring to justice those responsible. Can he tell us a little more about how he proposes to achieve that objective? In November, the Minister of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) that he would ensure that the United Nations Security Council would take further action to implement resolution 1207. What actions have been taken, and what action is now proposed, to ensure full compliance with that resolution? Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the economic sanctions agreed by the Contact Group last year are still in place? Is there any prospect of persuading other countries, including Russia, to join in imposing them?

I pay tribute, as did the Foreign Secretary, to the courage and commitment of the OSCE verification force. Can he comment on reports that, on Saturday, the OSCE assured the villagers of Racak that its teams would stay in order to deter the Serbs from attacking the survivors of the massacre, but that they were subsequently forced to leave by Serbian forces?

Was it not clear even before this activity that the October agreement had been breached? The violence had not ended, the military and interior police had not been withdrawn, full protection for civilians had not been secured and moves towards democratic autonomy had not taken place. What is the status of the agreement now, and what more can the Foreign Secretary tell us about the future of the OSCE representatives? How is their safety to be secured?

18 Jan 1999 : Column 568

In October, the Foreign Secretary gave assurances that the verification force would be backed by NATO aircraft, and that together they would be able to monitor

Has that surveillance been carried out? Today's statement from NATO says that the activation orders for air operations remain in place. In October, the Foreign Secretary said:

    "The only way to ensure that Milosevic keeps his promises is to keep the credible threat of force hanging over him."

In November, he said:

    "We will react to any substantial breach of the ceasefire by Belgrade by reactivating the order to our military commanders to commence military action."

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us where matters stand now? Has that threat been lifted, or is it still in place? If it is still in place, what prospect is there of its being implemented?

Next Section

IndexHome Page