|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): This is indeed a very timely debate in the light of the past few days' events and, in particular, of course, the reports from the ICRC and Amnesty International.
In the statement on Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence reiterated the need for open and transparent dialogue between the Government and the House. The vast majority of British troops in Iraq are conducting their difficult and dangerous operations to the very highest standards of professionalism in the toughest of conditions. It is right that we have all paid proper tribute to them, both today and on many previous occasions.
Sadly, it is not unusual for improper behaviour to occur in time of war and conflict, and swift and appropriate action needs to be taken by the proper authorities and overseen by the Government and relevant Ministers. It is vital that Ministers are made aware of all important reports, both internal ones and those provided by external organisations, not only so that action is taken at the earliest opportunity but so that the Government can ensure that they keep the House fully informed of important developments. So I welcome the Secretary of State's statement to the House on Monday, but I remain disappointed by the inadequacy of his response to some of the crucial questions put to him by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The Prime Minister yesterday answered questions in a rather similar fashion and insisted that there was no evidence of systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops. I think that that is confirmed in the report. He also confirmed that he had not seen the ICRC report until Monday this week, but we know that the report was received by British officials in Baghdad on 26 February. Despite the dialogue between those on the two Front Benches this afternoon, I am still not entirely clear why there was a three-month delay in bringing those very serious allegations to the notice of senior Ministers.
The Prime Minister's response that the report was not passed to Ministers in February and that he did not know of the allegations of abuse before receiving it was very carefully worded. What was not made clear was whether the Prime Minister was aware of the serious allegations concerning US troops, particularly in respect of Iraqi detainees, and whether he made any representation to President Bush during his recent visit to Washington. As a coalition partner, we surely have every right to know what our partners are doing in the name of the coalition of which we are part and for which we are therefore jointly responsible. But the crucial question remains: why were those reports, which are of obvious political significance, not shown to Ministers and thus not reported to the House?
In an earlier intervention, the Minister of State, who has left the Chamber for the moment, indicated that what the US does is nothing to do with him. I should have thought that anything to do with US or the coalition forces was to do with him and ought to be of concern to him. I understand that the Leader of the House stated that what the American forces had done was a stain on the coalition. Does my hon. Friend agree with the Minister of State, who says
13 May 2004 : Column 541
that that is nothing to do with him, or with the implication of what the Leader of the House said, which is that it is a stain on the coalition and is obviously a matter of concern to the Government?
Mr. Breed: All this is a good example of the way in which hairs are being split. Both views are correct in a way, but we have to recognise that, of course, any action by any coalition partner will have implications for all the others. That has been made perfectly clear in recent days.
If we find that any British troops have broken the Geneva convention or, indeed, any other human rights law, I accept the Minister's assurance that those incidents will be fully investigated and, if proven, those responsible will be appropriately punished.
The appearance of the black-and-white photographs in the Daily Mirrorthey now appear to be reconstructions or representationshave clearly focused attention on what may be disturbing behaviour by our troops that has been the substance of allegations by the Red Cross and Amnesty International for perhaps more than a year. We can only speculate about the motivation behind those images. There is the motivation of the Daily Mirror in using themit says that it investigated them fullyand the motivation of the people who set the thing up. We were led to believeand I acceptthat they are soldiers, and were named as soldiers A, B and C.
Mr. Borrow: On that specific point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Daily Mirror should have told the soldiers who came to it with the story to do their duty, see their superior officer and give him full details of the events that they reported?
Mr. Breed: I agree entirely that it is right that such actions should be taken before anything of doubtful provenance is published. I want to believe that, although the outcome has been appalling, the motivation of some of the soldiers was honourable. Their action may have been born of frustration following inaction about widely known reports. The way in which the images appeared has been extremely damaging, but we should await the full results of the investigation not only into how those things came to be published but about why they were brought into the public domain.
The US photographs that have been released demonstrate utterly unacceptable behaviour, and have led to an escalation in violence and tension not only in Iraq but among the wider Muslim population of the region. Already, in the past few days, we have seen the appalling and barbaric decapitation of a US civilian, which has shocked people the world over and has shown that even allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners can lead to direct retaliatory violence. It is therefore vital that the allegations about British troops are precisely defined and kept separate from the US investigations. What is the status of the British investigations and when will the results be made public? No criminal proceedings have been initiated as yet, but what disciplinary action has been taken against troops in Iraq found to have acted improperly. The Red Cross report states that a commanding officer handed back the body of Baha
13 May 2004 : Column 542
Mousa to his family in a dreadful state and apologised, assuring them that those responsible would be brought to justice. Compensation was paid, perhaps as admittance that the Army might be liable in the judgment of Army lawyers. Why has it taken so long to reach a judgment? Speed is of the utmost importance to calm fears and restore reputations as quickly as possible. We should not let these things fester in communities. Why did the family of Baha Mousa feel the need to bring another case against the MOD in the UK courts?
The allegations have dealt a serious blow to the coalition's efforts to win over the Iraqi people. As part of the coalition, our troops are inevitably identified with those of the US. The ICRC report makes no distinction between coalition forces, and was given at the outset to the US command. Regrettably, we are tarred with the same brush when allegations of abuse are made. Shame falls equally on UK and US forces, regardless of the extent of abuses by either side. The MOD has said that the European convention on human rights does not apply in Iraq, so can the Minister tell us what human rights law does apply there? In particular, does the international covenant on civil and political rights, to which Iraq is a party, apply? Can the Minister assure the House that his Government are doing everything possible to ensure the observance of human rights in all coalition operations in Iraq and that there are clear channels of communication between coalition partners for any alleged breaches of human rights law to be raised, including direct reference to Ministers?
Can the Minister confirm the rumours of the possible deployment of more British troops to Iraq? In particular, can he confirm that the US has requested British troops to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of Spanish troops? Can he confirm that additional UK troops will be deployed only on the specific request of UK commanders, and that they will be used exclusively to reinforce our own troops on the ground in the southern sector, and will not be used to bolster US forces in areas such as Falluja or Najaf?
Whatever happens regarding the future deployment of more British troops, we must ensure the continued protection and support of our troops currently stationed out in Iraq. With 30 June only a few weeks away, the Government must surely have determined their political and military strategy for the post-30 June handover. If additional troops are to be deployed, will the Minister tell us on what basis and on what conditions such troops will be made available? It is also not too early for coalition partners to consider their exit strategy, as was mentioned earlier, and in particular what role the United Nations may play in assisting that process.
Events in the past few weeks have seriously undermined coalition efforts to achieve the original objectives. Of course, we all want Iraq to become a peaceful, stable and secure state within which reconstruction can take place safely and speedily, but that all seems a very long way off now. It is far from clear how the original objectives will be achieved in the short to medium term, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that our troops may have to remain for far longer than was anticipated, which will have a significant effect not only on the MOD's budget but on the overstretch of our forces, which has been highlighted again this afternoon. At the earliest opportunity the Government must present clear proposals to enable the House to debate fully an increasingly worrying situation.
13 May 2004 : Column 543
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|