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4.43 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement on Kosovo being made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. In doing so, perhaps I may renew my apologies to the House for my inadvertence last week in leaving out certain paragraphs

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of a previous Statement. I assure the House that I shall indeed repeat every paragraph of this important Statement. The Statement is as follows:

    "As I speak, it is still unclear what the outcome of Mr. Holbrooke's talks in Belgrade will be, but there is little cause to be optimistic. On the assumption they produce no change in President Milosevic's position and the repression in Kosovo by Serb forces continues, Britain stands ready with our NATO allies to take military action. We do so for very clear reasons. We do so primarily to avert what would otherwise be a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo.

    "Let me give the House an indication of the scale of what is happening. A quarter of a million Kosovars, more than 10 per cent. of the population, are now homeless as a result of repression by Serb forces. Sixty-five thousand people have been forced from their homes in the last month, and no less than 25,000 in the four days since peace talks broke down. Only yesterday, 5,000 people in Srbica were forcibly evicted from their villages.

    "Much of the Drenica region of northern Kosovo is being cleared of ethnic Albanians. Every single village the UNHCR observers could see in the Glogovac and Srbica region yesterday were on fire. Families are being uprooted and driven from their homes. There are reports of masked irregulars separating out the men: we do not know what has happened to them. The House will recall that at Srebrenica they were killed.

    "Since last summer 2,000 people have died. Without the international verification force, there is no doubt the numbers would have been vastly higher.

    "We act also because we know from bitter experience throughout this century, most recently in Bosnia, that instability and civil war in one part of the Balkans inevitably spills over into the whole of it, and affects the rest of Europe too. Let me remind the House. There are now over 1 million refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the EU.

    "If Kosovo was left to the mercy of Serbian repression, there is not merely a risk but a probability of reigniting unrest in Albania; of Macedonia being de-stabilised; almost certain knock-on effects in Bosnia; and further tension between Greece and Turkey.

    "There are strategic interests for the whole of Europe at stake. We cannot contemplate, on the doorstep of the EU, a disintegration into chaos and disorder.

    "We have made a very plain promise to the Kosovar people. Thousands of them returned to their homes as a result of the ceasefire we negotiated last October. We have said to them and to Mr. Milosevic we would not tolerate the brutal suppression of the civilian population. After the massacre at Racak, these threats to Milosevic were repeated. To walk away now would not merely destroy NATO's credibility; more importantly it would be a breach of faith with thousands of innocent civilians whose only desire is to live in peace and who took us at our word.

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    "I say this to the British people. There is a heavy responsibility on a government, when putting our forces into battle, to justify such action. I warn. The potential consequences of military action are serious, both for NATO forces and the people in the region. Their suffering cannot be ended overnight. But in my judgment the consequences of not acting are more serious still for human life and for peace in the long term.

    "We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe, from death, barbarism and ethnic cleansing by a brutal dictatorship; and to save the stability of the Balkan region where we know chaos can engulf all of Europe. We have no alternative but to act and act we will, unless Milosevic even now chooses the path of peace.

    "Let me recap briefly on the last few months. Last October, NATO threatened to use force to secure Milosevic's agreement to a ceasefire and an end to the repression that was then in hand. This was successful--at least for a while. Diplomatic efforts, backed by NATO's threat, led to the creation of the 1,500 strong Kosovo Verification Mission. A NATO extraction force was established in neighbouring Macedonia in case the monitors got into difficulty.

    "At the same time, Milosevic gave an undertaking to the US envoy Mr. Holbrooke that he would withdraw Serb forces so that their numbers returned to the level before February 1998--roughly 10,000 internal security troops and 12,000 Yugoslavia army troops. Milosevic never fulfilled that commitment; indeed, the numbers have gone up. We believe there are some 16,000 internal security and 20,000 Yugoslav army troops now in Kosovo, with a further 8,000 army reinforcements poised just over the border.

    "In January, NATO warned Milosevic that it would respond if he failed to come into compliance with the October agreements, if the repression continued, and if he frustrated the peace process. Milosevic has failed to meet any of these requirements. Even then, intense diplomatic efforts have been under way. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and his French colleague, Mr. Vedrine, have co-chaired the peace talks in France. There is an agreement now on the table.

    "Autonomy for Kosovo would be guaranteed, with a democratically-elected assembly, accountable institutions and locally controlled police forces. After three years, Kosovo's status would be reviewed. The rights of all its inhabitants, including Serbs, would be protected, regardless of their ethnic background. And the awful conflict that has been a blight on the lives of its peoples could come to an end.

    "The Kosovo Albanians have signed the peace agreement. The Serbs have not. They have reneged on the commitments they made on the political texts at Rambouillet. And they refuse to allow a peacekeeping force in Kosovo under NATO command to underpin implementation.

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    "It takes two sides to make peace. So far, only one side has shown itself willing to make the commitment. It was Milosevic who stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989. It is Milosevic who is now refusing to tackle a political problem by political means.

    "NATO action would be in the form of air strikes. It will involve many NATO countries. It has the full support of NATO. It will have as its minimum objective to curb continued Serbian repression in Kosovo in order to avert a humanitarian disaster. It would therefore target the military capability of the Serb dictatorship. To avoid such action, Milosevic must do what he promised to do last October--end the repression, withdraw his troops to barracks, get them down to the levels agreed, and withdraw from Kosovo the tanks, heavy artillery and other weapons he brought into Kosovo early last year. He must agree to the proposals set out in the Rambouillet Accords, including a NATO led ground force.

    "Any attack by Serbian forces against NATO personnel engaged in peacekeeping missions elsewhere in the region would be completely unjustified and would be met with a swift and severe response in self-defence. President Milosevic should be in no doubt about our determination to protect our forces and to deal appropriately with any threats to them.

    "Mr. Holbrooke has made the position of the international community crystal clear to Milosevic. There can be no doubt about what is at stake. The choice is now his.

    "Milosevic can choose peace for the peoples of Kosovo and an end to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's isolation in Europe. Or he can choose continued conflict and the serious consequences that would follow.

    "I hope the House will join with me in urging President Milosevic to choose the path of peace, and support NATO and the international community in action should he fail to do so."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in another place by the Prime Minister. I understand the complexities of the issues involved. Resolving the problems resulting from the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia have tested many minds, both political and diplomatic, for many years. Indeed, there is a great history to the difficulties created by the disintegration of Yugoslavia. They have also been created by the actions of a brutal dictator. President Milosevic holds a great deal of responsibility not only for the announcement today but for the atrocities of recent years.

First, I wish to make it plain that we on this side of the House fully support the action of the British Armed Forces. The Government have taken a big step in asking them to perform their role in the area. We on these

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Benches offer our support not only to those on the front line but to those who work in support of that job, maintaining the supply lines from this country to the area of operation, and to the families left behind while a difficult and dangerous job is undertaken. But the recent history of the decision has been one of dithering and indecisiveness. Indeed, does the noble Baroness agree that there is no case for the string of last warnings and ultimatums which have not been followed through?

The Government were right when they said last year that Europe had been dithering and disunited in its response. Unfortunately, that dithering and disunity continued and as a result the credibility of NATO has been called into question. Therefore, will the Leader of the House understand that while I welcome the unavoidable demonstration of NATO's credibility, I regret that action against Serbia did not take place earlier? If it had taken place, there may well have been a far swifter resolution to the problem.

One concern, felt, I suspect, all around the House, is the additional strain put on our Armed Forces and their ability to maintain pressure beyond a short period of time. I understand that a Chief of Defence staff recently said that we can maintain two operations such as Bosnia and Kosovo for only six months. Can the Minister say what steps the Government will take to ensure that the deployment announced today can be sustained?

As regards the objectives, can the noble Baroness tell us in a clear and concise manner what they are? Will the action be aimed at military targets? Can the noble Baroness inform the House whether it is envisaged that any military action will be followed up by the use of ground forces? What will the Government's response be if Milosevic does not back down; in other words, what will happen if air strikes fail? Can the noble Baroness give an assurance that any NATO action against Serbia will not amount to bombing in a vacuum and that the Government have a long-term political and military strategy?

It is impossible to deal with this issue without reflecting on what response might come from in Russia. Does the noble Baroness have any early indication of the response from Russia? To what extent are Serbian forces supported by Russian arms? As British Armed Forces will be going in to bomb positions, what technical support is provided by Russian nationals? What position will the Government and NATO take to the rearmament of Serbian positions by Russians? Finally, what reaction has there been in the European Union? Is there a united position among our EU partners and, if not, which countries have objected to the action being taken by NATO?

Obviously, we hope that the situation is resolved quickly and efficiently. Can the noble Baroness give an assurance that if there are any changes in the situation on the ground, or if it is envisaged that ground forces will be used, a further Statement will be made to this House?

4.59 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement

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made by the Prime Minister in another place. It is a grave but realistic Statement and I find little in it to disagree with. I support the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in asking the noble Baroness to keep the House up to date with any changes because we all recognise that it is a fast moving situation with few fixed points. We must all hope that Richard Holbrooke's mission will succeed but--and it is the principal point addressed by the Statement--we must be ready for failure.

The decisions are difficult for both Her Majesty's Government and NATO, and for everyone involved in this extraordinary event. I can only say, and I think this would win the support of all sides of the House, that to do nothing is no longer an option, if it ever was. We cannot now draw back. It would be a humilation for NATO and, as the Prime Minister said, a betrayal of our plain promise to the Kosovo people. It would also be morally indefensible to do so on humanitarian grounds. The Prime Minister sets out in his Statement some of the details of the events with which we are already familiar but which deserve to be repeated, though they often do not bear to be thought about.

The United Kingdom's best long-term interests certainly cannot lie in withdrawing or in equivocation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on that. It is not only the strategic interests of the whole of Europe that are at stake, as the Prime Minister said, but also the long term strategic interests of the United Kingdom.

We now need to move fast. This is not the time to make an issue of the gap which has occurred since the withdrawal of the OSCE monitors, Mr. Holbrooke's visit to Belgrade and the time that has been lost while the talks continue and the Serbs take the action which they are doing in Kosovo. I hope there will be no suggestion of any further delay to take account of Prime Minister Primakov's visit to Washington. That cannot be a reason for delaying what now needs to be done.

We all recognise that there are grave risks in the action once begun and that it may have to go beyond air strikes. I do not press the Minister for any further comments. The air strikes may indeed have painful consequences, including civilian casualties, but it will be necessary to come to terms with the fact that once embarked upon this course we need to plan for the next step if air strikes prove not sufficient. Whatever the case, we are going into this with our eyes wide open and recognise fully that the engagement of Britain's own Armed Forces may lead to casualties which will be a further painful price to pay in a necessary duty.

I ask the noble Baroness two questions. What future role does she envisage for the United Nations and for the OSCE if the air strikes succeed? Who determines what happens to the monitors now in Macedonia? Will they be retained there and, if so, can we anticipate any future role for unarmed monitors, despite what the Prime Minister says about the achievement which may lie with them? What information do the Government have about Russian arms and technology recently reaching the Serbs and, if we have reason to believe that such developments have occurred, what representations

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have been made in Moscow? It would be very helpful to have the Government's assessment of the attitude of the Russians beyond their known public statements.

5.5 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am very grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken from their respective Front Benches for their welcome understanding of the very grave situation in which we find ourselves and of the potential difficulties ahead. It is also appropriate to say that of course we agree entirely with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about the degree of responsibility for this situation which lies at the door of Mr. Milosevic. I would very much like to endorse his words of support for the Armed Forces who may well be undertaking a risk to their lives. I agree with him entirely that, although our thoughts and very good wishes go initially to the front line forces, we must never forget those who are in the lines of support back at their bases; and, in particular, their families. I am sure the whole House is grateful to him for underlining those sentiments and join him in expressing them.

Both noble Lords raised the question of the degree of international support and agreement which lies behind the possibility of military action. I emphasise that the NATO Council endorsed this position yesterday at a meeting. Thirteen countries are supporting militarily the effort in the region and therefore it could genuinely be said to be a united international effort.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked whether or not this overstretched our Armed Forces. I am sure that he was as delighted as I was that my right honourable friend Mr. Robertson said yesterday in answer to questions on this point in another place that the strategic defence review and all its implications was in no way challenged by the possibility of military action in this field because that was based on global assumptions that did allow us the flexibility to do more or less in specific theatres should the time arise. My right honourable friend also noted in answer to questions in another place that, although it is a very serious undertaking for the Army, recruitment has increased in the past year by 17.6 per cent. and, although none of us should be complacent about the possibilities of stretching our resources, there is no need to be immediately concerned on that front.

Both noble Lords made points about the long-term strategy which we face in this area, both militarily and politically, and they both understand that those are very fast-moving and fluid situations. The primary objective of the initial strikes, if they are to take place, is to do precisely what the Statement says, which is to alleviate the possibility of an appalling humanitarian disaster which is already gathering speed in various places. Of course we hope that when, in the colloquialism, Mr. Milosevic's military installations are degraded, some forces within the country will bring him to his senses in terms of trying to effect a political agreement on the Rambouillet accords. Those have already been signed by the Kosovar Albanians and form the basis for a political way forward on a very clear-cut strategy which allows for an interim agreement that would last

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in the first instance for three years. That would naturally, as the original agreements proposed, call for an agreement by the Serbs that the Military Implementation Support Force would be allowed into Kosovo precisely to do what its title indicates. That too, as the Statement said, is very far from Mr. Milosevic's position at the moment. Those remain the ambitions of the political and military strategy which the allies and those involved with them are seeking to undertake.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, asked whether there was any future for the role of the unarmed observers, the OSCE people, who of course have now left. I am sure the Government hope that were what now seem slightly theoretical objectives that I have underscored finally to become a practical reality in the wake of any military action, those people may indeed have a role in implementing the political strategy which I have outlined.

Both noble Lords asked me about the Russian position. I believe that Mr Primakov's presence in Washington is a factor in the international understandings which are being worked out at present. But that may be a positive rather than a negative ingredient, as was originally suggested. I do not have information about the most recent indication of what the Russian arms support may be in Yugoslavia. However, it is common knowledge that much of the military equipment and the way in which the Serbian Yugoslav army has been trained follows the old Warsaw Pact model. That is widely recognised.

However, we should not be too alarmed by the Russian reaction. Clearly, at a political level, they are as frustrated by the intransigence of Mr Milosevic as are many other countries. They are members of the Contact Group and have played an extremely important role in some of the earlier discussions which led to the Rambouillet negotiations. At this stage, we should be optimistic about their collaboration, if not their welcome, in relation to what may need to happen next.

Both noble Lords asked me to give them updated information and seek other opportunities to discuss the whole issue as it develops. I am only too happy to say that I shall repeat any relevant Statement on this matter. Noble Lords may be interested to hear that since I rose to repeat the Statement, I have been told that Mr. Holbrooke is now giving a press conference in Belgrade and the indications are that he will then leave the country. Noble Lords will draw the implications from that piece of information that I should expect them to do.

5.11 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, will the noble Baroness go further in relation to two matters raised by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde? Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the air strikes do not work. Let us say that there are then three weeks of bombing. Nothing happens. The Serbs continue to beat up the Albanians. It has been true since before Alexander the Great that the only thing which achieves supremacy on the ground is either the hoplites at Persepolis or the GIs

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in Kosovo. It does not matter. There must be infantry on the ground and without that infantry threat, it is possible that the whole operation will go wrong.

Secondly, the noble Baroness said that she did not know a lot about what the Russians were doing in relation to arms supply. However, on the one o'clock news today, there was a report that--I believe it was--the Azerbaijanis had stopped an Antonov cargo aeroplane and had not allowed it to continue with its refuelling because it had either three or six brand new Mig fighters on their way to Serbia. It is all very well for there to be the odd half pound of semtex, but even three Mig fighters seem to make a rather larger hole in the sanctions wall. Will the Minister say something about that?

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