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3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : With permission, I should like to make a statement.

The House will share the Government's feelings of outrage at the artillery attack on Srebrenica on Monday, in which, according to reports, at least 56 people were killed and 70 wounded. That was a new milestone of inhumanity in a conflict which had already spawned many atrocities. On that occasion, as on many others, the Bosnian Serbs appear to have been responsible. We should remember that the Serbs in Bosnia are not uniquely guilty, although they bear the main responsibility for current events in Bosnia. The other parties too have committed crimes. Indeed, the British soldier who was killed in January while escorting a convoy of sick and wounded did not fall to a Serbian bullet.

It is not for want of effort by the international community that those horrors continue. The Government have been at the forefront of these efforts. The London conference last August, co-chaired by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, renewed the search for a negotiated settlement of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia--not only in Bosnia. Since then, the Government have given its fullest support to the efforts of Lord Owen and Mr. Vance to achieve such a settlement.

Success seemed in sight three weeks ago, when the Bosnian Muslims joined the Bosnian Croats in signing all the elements of the Owen-Vance peace plan. It is a matter of the deepest regret that the Bosnian Serbs have not yet been prepared to sign. I hope that, even at this late stage, and despite all that has happened, they will be prepared to reconsider.

Meanwhile, our armed forces have played a leading and distinguished part both in bringing relief to the suffering in Bosnia and in enforcing the arms embargo against the whole of former Yugoslavia and the wider sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Since November, the Cheshire battalion group has escorted more than 33,000 tonnes of food and other humanitarian aid to destinations in Bosnia. RAF Hercules aircraft have flown 427 sorties to Sarajevo, and delivered nearly 6,000 tonnes of aid. Ships of the Royal Navy, assisted by airborne early warning and maritime patrol aircraft of the Royal Air Force, have patrolled the Adriatic and its surrounding air space, alongside allies in NATO and the Western European Union, to enforce the embargo and the sanctions.

Earlier this week, pressure on the warring factions was increased, when NATO aircraft began patrolling Bosnian air space to enforce the no-fly zone, in accordance with Security Council resolution 816. RAF Tornado F3s and tankers are on standby to fly to bases in Italy to join in that operation when called forward by SACEUR to do so. The Government fully share the widespread frustration that diplomacy and military pressure have not yet succeeded, and that the suffering still continues. Other weapons are available. The sanctions noose is being drawn tighter against Serbia, whose future is grim--she faces isolation and economic ruin.

At the same time, the House will recognise that there are no easy solutions to a conflict in which all three ethnic groups have willingly engaged and which has many of the

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characteristics of a civil war. If there had been, the international community would have applied them long ago. Some argue that, if the outside world is not prepared to intervene militarily, it should at least refrain from enforcing an arms embargo that is bound to favour the Serbs, since they have access to the arsenals of the Yugoslav national army.

That is an understandable argument, but we should be clear where it leads. Removal of the United Nations arms embargo would certainly result in the Bosnian Muslims being free to acquire all the weapons they needed. Presumably, the Bosnian Serbs for their part would also seek more arms from other countries. The result would be to prolong the conflict and to make it even bloodier and more vicious than it is today, bringing continuing suffering to innocent civilians. In those circumstances, it is difficult to see how UNPROFOR's humanitarian mission could continue. The chances of negotiating aid through the front lines, as at present, would be sharply diminished. Meanwhile, the international consensus would almost certainly have been lost. The United Nations' efforts in former Yugoslavia so far have been made possible by Russian willingness to support the necessary resolutions and to put pressure on the Serbs. That co-operation has been invaluable, but, given the internal situation in Russia, it cannot be taken for granted. It would be unlikely to survive an escalation of the conflict through the removal of the arms embargo.

There have also been calls for the use of air strikes to enforce a peace settlement. There could be circumstances in which the selective use of air power would be relevant. NATO, at the request of the United Nations, is enforcing the no-fly zone at the present time, but the clear military advice received by the Government is that air strikes unsupported by substantial numbers of troops on the ground would be unlikely to be effective given the nature of the conflict, the weapons deployed and the terrain. The chances of civilian casualties would be high. Meanwhile, the risks to British and other United Nations troops, and to the success of the humanitarian relief operation, would remain. While one should not rule out that expedient absolutely, it is one that would change in a fundamental way the role of the UN and bring it into the heart of the conflict as a combatant.

The right course to pursue is the current policy, thankless and frustrating though it is. Diplomacy must continue. Pressure on those responsible for prolonging the conflict must be increased. The plight of the suffering must be alleviated. The international consensus necessary to do all those things must be maintained. They will continue to be the Government's objectives.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say how appalled we all were to see the maiming and murder of innocent victims in Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia. It reminded us graphically of the barbarity of war, and behoves us to redouble our efforts to make sure that this particular war ends as speedily as possible.

We would like to be associated with the Secretary of State's comments about our own troops in Bosnia. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was right to highlight their bravery and fortitude. At no small risk to themselves, those troops ensured that thousands of tonnes of

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humanitarian aid got through and saved many lives. It is true to say that, thankfully, our worst fears about starvation have not been realised.

But that raises another point. There have been reports that the United Nations is now running out of food. If that is the case, what are her Majesty's Government doing about that ? Is it not offensive that thousands of tonnes of food are rotting away in EC intervention stores when people in Europe are starving ? Will the Minister take that on board and see what can be done ?

The Secretary of State is right when he says that we cannot lift the arms embargo to the Muslims. It has always seemed to us rather crazy to try to douse a fire with petrol. It never works. Will he confirm that much weaponry is already in the hands of the 190,000 fighters from the three sides of the bloody conflict ? Will he further confirm that planes with middle east markings and carrying arms have landed in Croatia ?

The Secretary of State is also correct to rule out the use of ground troops before a peace agreement has been made. If it is envisaged that 70,000 troops will be needed to keep the peace after an agreement, has the Secretary of State made any estimate of the number of troops required to contain the fighting before the agreement has been made ?

Does the Secretary of State accept that this civil war cannot be solved by external military intervention ? If so, why are the Government so reluctant to come forward with new initiatives ? Why have the Government agreed with the other G7 members to postpone further urgent discussions on Bosnia in the United Nations Security Council ?

If the matter is to be solved by diplomacy, it will be through the United Nations, and we plead with and urge the Government to raise the matter once again in the Security Council. It is truly through diplomacy, pressure and tighter economic sanctions that the Serbs will be made to sign the peace agreement, so that we have the possibility of a lasting peace in that country. There is a feeling of a lack of urgency on behalf of the Government.

Mr. Rifkind : First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his tribute to the work being carried out by our forces in Bosnia. It is helpful for their contribution to be seen to be recognised by the House. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development will monitor carefully whether extra aid is required to prevent starvation in Bosnia. Fortunately, the effort that has been carried out so far has, as he rightly says, ensured that the predictions of mass starvation have not come about during the winter months, and we wish to ensure that that situation continues.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether middle east aircraft had been seen landing in Bosnia. I cannot confirm the details of that, but we have reason to believe that some arms have been supplied to the Bosnian Muslim forces and to other factions taking part in the war. The hon. Gentleman asked about the number of troops that might be required if there was to be military intervention in Bosnia. The answer to that would depend on whether such intervention followed the signing of a peace treaty by all three parties and was in the form of a United Nations peacekeeping role, or whether it was to impose a peace settlement that had not been agreed by the parties.

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Even if there was agreement to a ceasefire, some 50,000 to 60,000 United Nations forces might be required, and, if there was no peace treaty or ceasefire, clearly the number that would have to be contemplated would be much larger, and, in a situation of continuing warfare in Bosnia, could run into hundreds of thousands.

Her Majesty's Government entirely share the desire to get through as quickly as possible the new United Nations resolution increasing the sanctions proposals. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that requires unanimity in the Security Council and that Russia has, for reasons that are well known to the hon. Gentleman, asked for some delay in the consideration of that resolution.

That will not necessarily lead to any delay in its implementation. The current resolution before the Security Council allows a 15-day period after it has been passed before it comes into effect. It is possible that, even if there is a delay in passing the resolution, there will not then be a need for that 15-day period to elapse before the new resolution comes into effect. Therefore, the Russians' request may not have the consequences that the hon. Gentleman fears.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) : I very much welcome the statement of my right hon. and learned Friend, which sets out the difficulties of intervening in the tragic affairs in Bosnia. I particularly welcome the caution that he shows about the proposal that we should indulge in air strikes against Serbian artillery positions. We have many troops sitting under the barrels of Serbian artillery, and I have no doubt that they would be the subject of retaliation the moment that any air attacks were launched. Therefore, will my right hon. and learned Friend give the House an absolute assurance that, should circumstances change and an attack on Serbian artillery positions be contemplated, British troops currently giving humanitarian aid in Bosnia would be withdrawn before such attacks took place?

Mr. Rifkind : We attach the greatest importance to the physical safety and security of the British forces in Bosnia. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how one could contemplate continuing a humanitarian operation in the name of the United Nations if the United Nations was simultaneously authorising military strikes on the combatants on the ground in the same areas where the United Nations relief operations were taking place. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how those two objectives could be reconciled.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : Although the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I disagree about a number of elements of this matter, I believe him to be fundamentally right in resisting calls for the relaxation of the arms embargo, from whatever quarters those calls may come. However, may I remind him that Srebrenica is territory assigned to the Bosnian Muslims. What military assessment has been made of the prospects of Srebrenica being captured by the Bosnian Serbs who are presently laying seige to it? What political assessment has been made of the consequences for the Vance-Owen plan if the Bosnian Serbs were to succeed in capturing Srebrenica?

Mr. Rifkind : I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his earlier remarks. On the latter part of his question, clearly, any conflict in Bosnia, whether in Srebrenica or elsewhere, goes against the spirit and objectives of the

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Vance-Owen plan. We very much hope to achieve a ceasefire by all the parties and an end to the conflict in Srebrenica and elsewhere in order to promote the circumstances to enable a more lasting peace to be achieved throughout Bosnia.

Srebrenica is the most immediate issue, on which our attention is focused-- a few weeks ago, it was focused on Sarajevo, and earlier on Dubrovnik. Clearly, a number of localities dominate the headlines at any given time. But unless we can achieve peace throughout Bosnia, local agreements in specific parts of Bosnia will be unlikely to contribute to the overall objectives.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that he and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary are right to warn against the dangers of making policy for the medium term in the emotional heat of the moment? However, does he accept that the present position is untenable and there is a real danger, which we must anticipate, of being dragged into a far wider and more difficult conflict unless some check is imposed on the Serbian-driven expansionism and aggression, which we are presently witnessing, and which is leading to all the blood and slaughter? While I recognise my right hon. and learned Friend's caution and the difficulties faced by all policy makers in such circumstances, may I ask him at least to assure us that we are actively considering such matters with our United States and United Nations allies?

Mr. Rifkind : I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend has said. The thinking behind the tightening of economic sanctions is to bring home to the Serbians the heavy price they pay for their continued activity. It is important not to underestimate the effect that sanctions have already had. Industrial production has come down by more than 40 per cent. since sanctions were imposed, more than 65 per cent. of the work force are unemployed or temporarily laid off, and Serbian figures suggest that the first eight months of sanctions cost Serbia more than $10 billion in lost revenue. Therefore, the sanctions are clearly having a powerful impact on the Serbian economy. We must hope that that will help bring those responsible for that country's policy to their senses.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : What is to be done about men of fighting age in Srebrenica? Will they be given arms so they can defend themselves? Will they be evacuated under United Nations military protection, or will they be left to be slaughtered by the Serbian forces?

Mr. Rifkind : The UN forces in the area are the best judges of how they can contribute to the humanitarian objectives in accordance with the mandate that has been laid down. In recent months, UN forces throughout Bosnia have carried out activities which have been slightly broader than those originally envisaged. We originally expected them to be carrying out obligations in relation to the supply of food and aid. In recent weeks, they have been carrying out additional activities, involving giving transport to refugees wishing to go from war zones to areas of relative peace. It is important to allow the UN that discretion as long as it is consistent with the humanitarian framework--the mandate under which it currently operates.

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Mrs. Edwina Currie : (Derbyshire, South) : The Secretary of State will be aware that a number of my constituents are serving in Bosnia at the moment. Does he accept that those of us who are reluctant to send thousands more young men and women to that fighting area are acting not from lack of moral courage or lack of moral fibre but from sincere and heartfelt worries about what would happen to our constituents and their families--people to whom we as elected Members have to respond every weekend--should we take any decisions that would embroil them in that dreadful conflict?

Mr. Rifkind : Important moral dimensions have to be taken into account when our service men and service women are asked to go into a war zone. First, we must consider whether it is right and proper for them to be there, and secondly we must consider whether they have a reasonable prospect of carrying out the role for which they have been sent. If one comes, however reluctantly, to the judgment that there is not a military solution to the problem we face, it will not do any service either to the victims of aggression or to the wider moral and ethical issues to take action which one believes is foredoomed to failure.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I welcome the general thrust of the statement. I represent people who have already suffered because of the conflict in Bosnia, and I join the Minister in paying tribute to our security forces. We in Northern Ireland have experience of their professionalism, and we have no doubt that they are doing the same sort of job in Bosnia.

I should like to press the Minister on the concept of sanctions. When have sanctions really been effective? Time and again, the House has been assured that they do not work. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is easy to give moral lectures on political courage, as the Prime Minister did recently in Northern Ireland, but that they do not rest well on the shoulders of someone who in her turn yielded moral courage and, at the behest of terrorists, moved towards signing an agreement that yielded to them? The Government should not follow the line proposed by Baroness Thatcher.

Mr. Rifkind : I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the history of sanctions does not give one great confidence that by themselves they will achieve the desired objective ; but that is not to say that they cannot be part of a wider strategy and cannot make an important contribution towards maintaining the maximum pressure on those who are responsible for aggression. Sanctions have a role to play, but only as part of a wider strategy.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealdon) : I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, and especially his cool, rational analysis, and the recognition of his moral obligation to ensure that our troops are not involved in a dispute that is not of their making. I also welcome the recognition of the fact that it is not in the interests of the United Kingdom to plunge British troops into armed intervention in a national civil war. What assessment has been made by NATO high command of the time it would take to involve NATO itself in peacekeeping, should there be an agreement between the three conflicting parties in the former Yugoslavia?

Mr. Rifkind : In part, the answer to my hon. Friend's question clearly depends on how much contingency work

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has been done in advance of any such ceasefire. It would also depend on the judgment about whether any agreement signed by the three parties could be assumed to be a reliable treaty which they honourably intended to carry out and were able to deliver. We should have to be cautious in seeking to identify whether any treaty that might be signed at some future time was qualitatively different from some of the previous agreements that were signed and then dishonoured almost within minutes of their making.

Such decisions are difficult and delicate. We hope that the Vance-Owen agreement will be signed by the Bosnian Serbs as well as by the other two parties, and that, in signing it, they intend to deliver the commitments into which they have entered.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Since last August, a number of Opposition Members have positively supported the use of military intervention, in the form of air strikes, against Serbian positions because we believe that it is impossible to negotiate with fascism. We believe that fascism sets its objectives and ignores its victims. Fascism is what we have in Serbia. Is not it about time that this country, the European Community, the United Nations and NATO realised that this cancer growing at the very heart of Europe has got to be stopped now before it spreads even further?

Mr. Rifkind : Without commenting on the hon. Gentleman's description of the Serbian or Yugoslav authorities as fascists, I put it to him that there is at least one fundamental flaw in his approach. I understand that he wishes to see military strikes but, along with every hon. Member, does not wish to see the deployment of ground forces. It is difficult to understand that distinction if military might is to be used to achieve the objectives the hon. Gentleman seeks. The hon. Gentleman must consider, if he believes in the use of military power, on what basis he seeks to distinguish between air strikes and the use of all forces which might be available to the international community.

Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme) : My right hon. and learned Friend is more aware than most that the Serbs started this conflict with at least 10 times as much military hardware and ammunition supplies as the Muslims. I therefore ask my right hon. and learned Friend the question that I asked our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last November : is it not unprecedented for the United Nations to impose an arms embargo on the victim of military aggression--in this case, the Bosnian Muslims?

Do not the Government see that the inevitable consequence of the present policy is that ethnic cleansing and genocide will continue, because nothing whatsoever is being done by the international community to stop it? Has not the time come to get the Russians on side in this matter at the United Nations, and to threaten the Serbs with selective air strikes in the event that they do not sign up for a ceasefire and the Vance-Owen plan?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is correct in that, at the beginning of the conflict, the Bosnian Serbs had a preponderance of the military equipment that they inherited from the old Yugoslav armed forces. However, he should take into account the fact that this conflict is not simply an act of aggression by one faction against another. It is the consequence of the collapse of Yugoslavia and the

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development of a conflict within Bosnia among three sections of the community--all of which are Bosnian--which has many of the characteristics of a civil war.

Although I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of keeping Russian support for the actions of the United Nations--it is necessary if there is to be agreement within the Security Council--I do not believe that that support would be forthcoming for the military strikes that he has simultaneously proposed. He has to choose one or the other : he cannot expect a policy of military intervention to receive Russian support in the Security Council.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Before the United Nations has to go into the ranks of the Conservative party to keep the warring sides apart, will the Secretary of State agree that Margaret Thatcher at least articulated the deep anger and frustration that many people in this country feel about the inability of European Community powers to do anything about the situation in Bosnia? Is it not time to consider giving an ultimatum to the Serbian Government that, unless they are able to bring the Bosnian Serbs to account, there will be strikes against military targets inside Serbia in order to cut off the supply of arms from Serbia to the Bosnian Serbs?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman's suggestion, which is similiar to that made by my right hon. and noble Friend Lady Thatcher, would fundamentally change the role of the United Nations. The United Nations would then become, consciously and deliberately, a combatant in that war. Although I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman puts forward that view with knowledge of the implications, he must also realise that that would not only terminate the humanitarian efforts of the United Nations, including those of the United Kingdom, but would fundamentally change the whole nature of international involvement in that war, without any certainty or likelihood that it would bring an earlier end to the conflict in question.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South) : I am grateful for the compliments paid by my right hon. and learned Friend to the Cheshire battalion group in Bosnia. I agree with the general thrust of his statement, but does he not think that there is a ghastly parallel between the feebleness of the United Nations' stance today and that of the League of Nations, some 60 years ago, against expansionism? I do not know the answer, but it is there and we ought to start to look for it. We cannot find it by military intervention at the moment, but we must start to look beyond sanctions and find another method ; otherwise, we shall go through exactly what we went through 60 years ago.

Mr. Rifkind : I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend's comparison. When there is a conflict, whether it be the conflict in Bosnia or the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, for example, it is incredibly difficult for the international community to make a meaningful contribution towards ending it. The difference since the second world war is that, when a sovereign country is invaded by a foreign power, the United Nations, as we saw in the Gulf, is remarkably more successful than the League of Nations in the previous period. My hon. Friend has to take that fact into account when making historical comparisons.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : Although many people may not agree with the solutions proposed by

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Baroness Thatcher, I believe that she struck a chord when she expressed her sentiments about the horror of ethnic cleansing and the systematic rape and driving of women and children from their homes. The Secretary of State has been reluctant to contemplate limited air strikes against Bosnian Serbs in Serbia, but he has been careful not to rule them out completely. In what circumstances can he foresee limited air strikes being used?

Mr. Rifkind : I have already said that the use of air power in certain circumstances can be relevant, and that we are using it at the moment to enforce the no-fly zone. As to the hon. Gentleman's question whether air power could be used in some other way, that is not in itself an ethical question. It is a question whether, in the circumstances proposed, it would produce the benefit that has been identified by those who advocate it.

Our judgment is that that would not be the case, having regard to the proposals currently being made. It would not only destroy the humanitarian effort of the United Nations but would transform the United Nation's role. That, it seems to us, would not be in accordance with the objectives we seek.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that it is just over a year since Her Majesty's Government, in common with many other Governments, recognised Bosnia as an independent sovereign state ; that during that year 2 million or more people have been displaced ; that well over 100,000 people have been killed ; that the killing still goes on ; and that there is continued evidence of Serbian involvement, from Serbia itself, in these atrocities? Does my right hon. and learned Friend also accept that, today, the Bosnian Government are ethnically mixed, and that, whatever their shortcomings, they are far more democratic than the Government of that other nation, Kuwait, to whose aid we rightly went?

Mr. Rifkind : Although my hon. Friend is correct when he says that Bosnia is an independent state which has been recognised by the international community, the fact is that those who are involved in the combat within Bosnia are themselves Bosnian citizens--Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims--and that they are all involved in this carnage against one another. Until my hon. Friend comes to terms with that fact, it is not possible to think of this as simply an international war of the kind that he has occasionally sought to portray.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) : In the discussions that I had with Dr. Karadzic at the end of last year, he claimed that he had made an offer to the United Nations to provide it with the facility to have monitors at every command post of the Bosnian Serb army and at every Bosnian Serb airfield. Why has that offer not been taken up? That would be led shells at Srebrenica. Why do we not take up Dr. Karadzic's offer and put United Nations monitors in place?

Mr. Rifkind : As I recollect it, Dr. Karadzic made that proposal as a way of avoiding an enforcement resolution for the no-fly zone proposals. Since then, for the first time,

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Dr. Karadzic's supporters--the Bosnian Serbs --have introduced Bosnian Serb combat aircraft over the Bosnian skies. That is why it was necessary for the Security Council to pass the enforcement resolution, which is now being implemented by NATO on the United Nations' behalf.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the quickest available short cut to a general Balkan war and an escalation of the conflict far beyond the borders of Yugoslavia would be to bomb Serbian positions? Will he therefore treat the recent comments of Baroness Thatcher with the contempt that they deserve?

Mr. Rifkind : It is certainly important that we do all within our power to prevent the internationalisation of the crisis in Bosnia. That must be an objective in the interests of the whole world. I believe that bombing Serbia would exacerbate the situation in a way that would be unlikely to bring peace to that part of the world any earlier.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) : Does the Secretary of State realise how widespread the disappointment will be throughout the country that he has again used this opportunity to nail his colours so firmly to the fence? How many more millions of people must be driven from their homes and tens of thousands of people killed before the Government propose a policy commensurate with the genocide that we are witnessing?

Mr. Rifkind : I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I was waiting to hear which policy he would propose. He knows that, sadly, there are many such wars going on around the world at the present time--in Angola, in Cambodia and in Azerbaijan--as well as in Bosnia.

Mr. Field : This is in Europe.

Mr. Rifkind : I am not aware of any ethical distinction between a war in Bosnia and a war in Angola or Cambodia. If the hon. Gentleman is appealing to the Government on moral grounds, it is a curious moral distinction that is prepared to tolerate conflict in other parts of the world but not in Bosnia. Unless he has specific proposals that have not already been considered, I ask him to realise that the options that are being advanced by some of his hon. Friends are not, in our judgment, likely to produce the results that he and Conservative Members would like to see.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there will be widespread support for taking care not to risk the lives of British service men? Does he further accept that, throughout the country and across party divides, there is growing concern about the dilemma of where we are going and how we shall deal with this appalling problem? On the one hand we appear to be refusing to allow Bosnian Muslims to be adequately armed, but on the other hand the United Nations, by not using force, is denying those Muslims the right to defence. While their territory is continually being reduced, more and more of them are being slaughtered.

Is there no point at which the Government and the United Nations will say that enough is enough? We must say that or get out completely, because the ultimate result of the war will be many more thousands killed. The British people understand the Government's point of view but are a little ashamed that we have not been able to do enough to save the lives of many innocent people.

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Mr. Rifkind : We would all be anxious to do more if proposals were identified that would help to achieve the aims that my hon. Friend and I, and all other hon. Members, share. My hon. Friend says that we should tell the Bosnian Serbs, "Enough is enough," or that we should pull out from Bosnia entirely. In practice, that would mean pulling out the 2,500 British forces who have taken thousands of tonnes of aid to rescue many Bosnians, from all communities, from the starvation that they would have faced over the winter months. In recent weeks, we have seen how United Nations forces have been helping refugees by taking people to safe places away from the war zone. It may not be the most heroic policy and may not resolve the overall problems in Bosnia, but to say that, because we cannot achieve all we would like, we must resign ourselves to doing nothing, is a counsel of despair, and not one that would commend itself to the House or the country.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Does the Secretary of State recognise that there has been a shift of opinion, certainly across the country and in the House in recent months? I was among those who argued six or eight months ago against any form of military intervention. However, in view of the continued slaughter of innocent Bosnian civilians, is it not clear that far greater pressure must be placed on the Serbian leadership and military commanders? To a certain extent, one can draw an analogy with the ruler of Baghdad. Is it not the case that the Serbs continue their aggression, war crimes and atrocities because they know that no force will be used to stop them? Whether Lady Thatcher is right or wrong, are we to be appeasers in the face of some of the worst crimes in Europe since the end of the second world war?

Mr. Rifkind : If the hon. Gentleman wishes to draw parallels with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Kuwait, he should reflect on the fact that Kuwait and the Iraqi forces in Kuwait were subject to the largest strikes of air power for a sustained period of weeks, if not months, that the world had ever known, but that those strikes did not achieve the desired effect. They did not lead to the withdrawal of a single Iraqi soldier from the Gulf. It was only when a massive international coalition army went in on the ground that we achieved the liberation of Kuwait. Therefore, people who argue for selective air strikes must ponder whether that is likely to achieve the result that they have in mind.

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest) : Although I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his measured response to those who want further military involvement, what evidence does he have that the no-fly zone, fully implemented, will have any effect on ground fighting in the area ? Is there not a danger that the escalation of the involvement of NATO and others could encourage those who believe that, if they make enough noise, more support will be given and that we will be drawn in gradually, which could be dangerous in the future ?

Mr. Rifkind : The purpose of the no-fly zone is to ensure that the United Nations resolution of some months ago, banning the use of Bosnian aircraft by any of the fighting parties, should be implemented. We had considerable doubts and reservations about the wisdom or necessity of

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a no-fly zone enforcement resolution but those concerns became irrelevant when some weeks ago the Bosnian Serbs for the first time decided to reintroduce combat aircraft into Bosnia. Once they had done that, it became inevitable and necessary for the United Nations to enforce its own resolution. That is what the NATO operation, at the behest of the United Nations, is doing at the moment.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) : What representations are being made to the Russian Government at the moment to ensure that they change their attitude to the enforcement of sanctions in the next two weeks? What action is being taken within the European Community to stop the flouting of sanctions via the Danube, which has been going on for months? Why has it taken so long for air exclusion zones to be imposed when they were being talked about several months ago? Why is it only now that people are talking about truly enforcing sanctions, when we knew last summer that they were being broken?

Mr. Rifkind : The increase in sanctions currently being considered by the Security Council includes the stricter monitoring of the Danube. My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary is of course making strong representations to his Russian colleagues. I remind the hon. Gentleman what I told the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) : the current resolution allows for a 15-day period before any new Security Council sanction enforcement measures would apply but, if there is any delay because of the Russians, it may not be necessary to have that 15-day period after the passing of the resolution. Therefore, there may be no time lost as a result of the current Russian position.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham) : I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will acknowledge that none the less there is widespread anger in the community when we watch the reports that most of us saw yesterday. Does he accept, however, that he stands at the Dispatch Box not to express emotion and anger but to exercise his realistic judgment, and that the reasoned stand that he has taken today has the full support of the House? Will he please explain to the House the effect of deploying air power alone, as opposed to the use of air power with massive ground troop reinforcement, which some have urged--some of us believe unrealistically-- on the nation?

Mr. Rifkind : I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Of course, there can be circumstances in which air power by itself can achieve a desired result--for instance, if there is a particular target that can be identified, taken out from the air and eliminated. But in general, the use of air power as we have seen it exercised over the years has been to soften up a target that can then de dealt with by forces on the ground.

I know that my hon. Friend shares my view that, in the context of the terrain with which the Royal Air Force and other air forces would have to deal in Bosnia, it is difficult to believe that targets, including mobile artillery in heavily forested country, could easily be picked out and eliminated by the selective use of air power. At the end of the day, unless ground forces are also used, it is difficult to believe that such an operation could have more than a limited effect.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South) : Does the Secretary of State accept that considerable unhappiness has been expressed on both sides of the House about

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policies which will in effect give comfort to the Serbs when they listen to, or hear about, our discussion? We have ruled out certain action, and that decision has had support, but we have been given no suggestion of extra action. It is clear that, for the very reasons with which the Secretary of State started his statement, our present policies are ineffective. He referred to yesterday's shelling and--

Madam Speaker : Order. That is not a question.

Mr. Gunnell : I am coming to the question, Madam Speaker. As extra pressure has been mentioned, what extra pressure can in practice be brought to bear on the Serbs? It is imperative that, when they are redoubling their efforts to take more land, we adopt practical measures to curb them-- [Interruption.] I should like the Secretary of State to say--

Madam Speaker : Order. I call the Secretary of State.

Mr. Rifkind : As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, in the past week the United Nations has for the first time taken effective measures to prevent the use of air space by Bosnian Serbian combat aircraft. In the Security Council, we are currently discussing a substantial tightening of the economic sanctions that have already devastated the Serbian economy. No doubt other measures, which we hope will contribute to the result that we all wish to see achieved, will be considered.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker : We are now moving to the second statement. I had hoped to call more hon. Members to question the Secretary of State, and would have been able to do so if Members had put direct questions and not made such long statements.

Column 842


4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs (Mr. Neil Hamilton) : With permission, I should like to make a statement about strengthening the law to curb anti-competitive practices in the marketplace.

Last November my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade announced to the House the publication of a Green Paper on "Abuse of Market Power" which outlined three possible options for strengthening the law. Those options were to strengthen the existing legislation, to replace it with a prohibition, or to run the two systems in parallel.

We received 143 responses to the Green Paper. Copies of a summary of them have been placed in the Vote Office. There was no consensus amongst those who responded on which of the options represented the best way forward. Each of the options received roughly equal support. This contrasts with the overwhelming support for introducing a prohibition on restrictive trade practices. I can assure the House that the Government remain committed to introducing such a prohibition when legislative time permits.

Having carefully considered the arguments advanced for and against each of the options, the Government have decided that the best choice is to strengthen the existing system. With this strengthened regime we can retain the current wide scope and flexibility of powers without increasing the regulatory burden on firms.

It is proposed to strengthen the current legislation in four ways : stronger powers of investigation ; additional scope for enforceable undertakings ; provision of interim orders to suspend

anti-competitive practices ; and some coverage of property rights. Stronger investigative powers for the Director General of Fair Trading should enable him to establish more quickly whether there should be a full-scale investigation.

The director general currently has discretion to accept enforceable undertakings in lieu of a Competition Act reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It is proposed to extend this ability to enable him to accept such undertakings, subject to suitable safeguards, before his formal investigation under the Competition Act, and in lieu of a monopoly reference under the Fair Trading Act 1973. Breaches of these undertakings would be enforceable in the courts. This proposal received considerable support from respondents. The Green Paper suggested that companies might be made liable for penalties and damages from the point at which an MMC reference was made if they continued with a practice that was subsequently found to be against the public interest. A number of respondents argued that would be unjust and that it might lead a company to abandon a practice that was later found not to be against the public interest. That argument is accepted. But there can be cases in which immediate action is necessary. We therefore intend to take up the suggestion made by some respondents that we should be able to make interim orders under the Competition Act. These would prohibit specified activities by a firm if there was good reason to believe that a competitor, customer or supplier ran the risk of suffering serious damage during the period of the MMC's investigation.

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