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3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to maka statement on Bosnia.

The situation on the ground deteriorated over the past month. Around the Bihac pocket, Bosnian Government forces launched an attack, but were then forced back by the Bosnian Serbs. The Bosnian Serbs, with support from Croatian Serb forces and rebel Bosnian Muslims, have taken the fighting into the United Nations safe area. That contravention of Security Council resolutions led the commanders of the United Nations force and NATO to call for and carry out air strikes to deter attacks against the safe area.

The fighting has also intensified in central Bosnia, with Bosnian Government forces making gains against the Bosnian Serbs. In the safe areas of Sarajevo, Gorazde and Srebrenica, the civilian populations and the United Nations contingents are short of supplies as convoys have been held up. More than 400 United Nations troops had their movements limited by the Bosnian Serbs. Some were effectively held hostage.

That was the situation which faced the Ministers of the Contact Group when we met on 2 December. The Contact Group countries--Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States--united in calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Bihac pocket, including the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb forces from the safe area. We also called for talks to begin on a comprehensive agreement to cease hostilities throughout Bosnia.

The Contact Group supported the United Nations Protection Force's-- UNPROFOR's--mission, and demanded immediate freedom of movement for UNPROFOR and for humanitarian supplies throughout the country. Only once those steps have been taken and the Bosnian Serbs have accepted the Contact Group plan as the basis for a settlement can negotiations continue.

At the meeting last Friday night, the Contact Group reaffirmed the plan that we adopted last July. Under this plan, the integrity of Bosnia- Herzegovina would be preserved. The Bosnian Serbs would withdraw and hold 49 per cent. of the territory rather than more than 70 per cent., as they do today. The Bosnian Federation of Croats and Muslims would hold 51 per cent. whereas it holds less than 30 per cent. now.

We reiterated that the territorial proposal--the map of the 51 per cent. and 49 per cent.--could be adjusted by mutual agreement between the parties. Constitutional arrangements agreeable to the parties would also need to be drawn up--they would preserve the integrity of Bosnia- Herzegovina and allow equitable and balanced arrangements for the Bosnian- Croat federation and the Bosnian-Serb entity. We agreed that our officials would help the parties to reach a settlement on those issues. We did not discuss the lifting of the arms embargo or any change in the arrangements for the use of NATO air power in support of the UN.

Our purpose at that meeting was to re-launch the political process following agreement, which we hope will come soon, on a ceasefire. To carry this forward, I went to Belgrade with my French colleague, Mr. Juppe , for

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talks with President Milosevic. Mr. Milosevic welcomed the clarifications we were able to provide. He said that they would help him to put again to the Bosnian Serb Assembly the case for accepting the peace plan which he has accepted for some months.

The next day, Monday, more than 20 members--or more than a quarter--of the Bosnian Serb Assembly saw Mr. Milosevic in Belgrade, and afterwards they put out a statement saying that, in the light of the clarifications made to the Contact Group plan, the Pale Assembly should consider accepting it and entering negotiations on the map and the constitution to reach a final settlement. It is an encouraging step forward, but it is not enough, because the Bosnian Serb leadership has yet to accept the plan.

At the CSCE summit which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I attended in Budapest on 5 and 6 December, I met President Izetbegovic of the Bosnian Federation, President Tudjman of Croatia and the Secretaries- Generals of the UN and NATO.

The three Presidents all accept the Contact Group plan for Bosnia; they accept the continued presence of the UN force, and are all willing in principle to agree to a ceasefire throughout Bosnia--as are the Bosnian Serbs--although there remains a disagreement over its duration. We hope that the UN special representative, Mr. Akashi, will be able to make progress on a ceasefire this week.

Her Majesty's Government want the UN force to be able to continue its mission and the British contingent to continue to play a major part, but we must be clear about its role. It is not there to impose solutions on unwilling parties, it cannot fight on one side, and it does not defend one army's territories against the attacks of another. It is there to support the impressive aid effort--much of it British--to buttress ceasefires where they exist and, within its limitations, to underpin the safe areas and exclusion zones designated by the UN and NATO.

Withdrawal would be a difficult operation in itself, and the consequences for the civilians whom the forces are there to protect would be severe, but UNPROFOR can continue its mission only if it can do so without unacceptable risk, and if it can continue to fulfil its mandate. As with all military operations, planning is in hand to cover many possible events, including withdrawal, and the plans are constantly updated. The Government are not considering a unilateral withdrawal of the British contingent; we are working with our partners in NATO and the UN.

Our preferred way forward is clear, and I hope it commends itself to the House: first, a ceasefire in the Bihac safe area and throughout Bosnia; secondly, agreement on the free movement of UNPROFOR and for aid convoys; thirdly, resumption of urgent negotiations for a peace settlement on the basis of the Contact Group plan; fourthly, once agreement has been reached, withdrawal by the Bosnian Serbs from the land they hold to the new lines agreed. Finally, I welcome some progress on agreement between the Croatian Government and the Croatian Serbs. Last week, they signed an economic agreement which provides for the resumption of oil, water and electricity links between the Serb-held areas of Croatia and the rest of the country, and reopening the highway between

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Zagreb and Belgrade. This was achieved after months of patient diplomacy between Lord Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg.

I hope that the agreement can be implemented soon. It improves the prospects for negotiations leading to a lasting political settlement in Croatia and for normalisation of ties between Croatia and Serbia.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston): May I first express our appreciation for the fortitude and persistence which continues to be shown by all British troops in Bosnia? The whole House can take pride that, in the face of increasing tension, our troops have demonstrated the resolve to maintain aid to 2 million Bosnians who depend on the UN presence for food and fuel, and whose lives would be at risk if that presence was withdrawn in the worst of winter. May I also welcome the fact that both the European and the US members of the Contact Group now appear to be working to a common plan?

The Foreign Secretary, however, must be aware that the events of the past months have sharpened questions about the nature and the purpose of UN intervention in Bosnia. Will the Foreign Secretary recognise that the assault on Bihac has exposed the inability of the UN to defend safe havens which the UN itself has designated? The Foreign Secretary's statement refers to action being taken to underpin the safe havens. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that what is required is action to ensure that the remaining safe havens do not go the same way as Bihac. Does the Contact Group have any proposals to demilitarise the remaining safe havens so that they do not invite the same fate as Bihac? Does the United Nations have any plans to reinforce the troops around safe havens? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that critics in the US Congress and Senate would carry more authority if they were prepared to commit a single service man to defend those safe havens?

On the wider role of UNPROFOR, is the Foreign Secretary not concerned at the evident loss in authority of the UN's military presence? Does he understand the public frustration that soldiers of the world community can apparently be held to ransom by Bosnian Serbs with a total population of barely 1 million? Does it not encourage Bosnian Serbs to treat the UN presence with contempt rather than respect if they discover that hostage- taking is rewarded with concessions? Is that not the surest way to guarantee that hostage-taking will increase?

The Foreign Secretary will also be aware that public revulsion at the conflict in Bosnia is so strong because it is a war waged against the civilian population. Can we therefore be satisfied that only one person has yet been indicted before the UN war crimes tribunal, two years after it was set up in response to the horrors of ethnic cleansing and mass rape? Is there not a danger that the tedious progress of that tribunal is one more signal to the Bosnian Serbs that the world community will acquiesce in whatever outcome they can achieve by force of arms?

The Foreign Secretary will recall that, in the debate on the Queen's Speech, I expressed our view that any lasting, just peace must be based on the integrity of Bosnia's borders and the right of refugees to return to the areas from which they have been expelled. Therefore, will the Foreign Secretary clarify what is meant in his statement by

"equitable and balanced arrangements for the . . . Bosnian-Serb entity"?

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Is he aware that the press have reported that as some form of confederation with Serbia? Would he himself recognise that any offer of association between Bosnian Serbs and the state of Serbia that compromised the sovereignty of Bosnia will be seen as an admission by the west that it has given up on trying to restore Bosnia as an independent state?

What future does the Foreign Secretary now see for the Muslim population of Bosnia? What equitable and balanced arrangements are now available to them, and can they have a viable future if they are confined to a broken state covering only a third of the former Bosnia and almost entirely surrounded by greater Serbia, in reality if not in name?

I began by saying that the House can take pride in our troops in Bosnia who have shown firmness and dedication. However, no hon. Member can be proud of the response to the crisis in Bosnia of the world community which has shown indecision and division. Let us at least ensure that any settlement should not sanction the conquest of territory by force of arms, should not isolate the Muslim communities of Bosnia, and should not weaken the authority of the UN to intervene the next time one of its members is the victim of aggression.

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about our troops. I am also glad that he pointed out one truth which has not always been so. I have had a strong feeling in the past few weeks that we are working together more completely with the US Administration on Bosnia than we have been for a long time. For example, a statement such as President Clinton's in Budapest two days ago that no one will win a military victory there, so we must work for a negotiated settlement, has, when we have made it in the past, sometimes been attacked. It is a good thing that that comes from the President of the United States, and is backed up by what United States diplomacy is doing.

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's concern and the public frustration about which he talked. I also share his concern about the UN's loss of authority. All members of the UN, but particularly those who are troop contributors, have all the time to review and assess whether the difficulties, which the hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly accurate in describing, outweigh the good that can be done. If they do, and if the risks become unacceptable, the troops should be withdrawn; but, as I said, we do not believe that we have reached that point.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has just returned, and he tells me that, in central Bosnia, where most of our troops are, and where there is not much news because there is not much disaster, the situation has improved considerably. Thanks to our troops and to the UN, 90 per cent. of the towns in that part of the country now have electricity, running water and basic medical facilities, and roads that used to be blocked are now open, with supplies flowing freely along them. That would not have happened without our forces, and it would probably be at risk if they were withdrawn. That is the balance that we have to strike.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the war crimes tribunal. Such matters always move slowly; he will understand that from his knowledge of the profession. But, as he rightly says, there is already one case, and evidence is being collected for others.

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As for the constitutional arrangements, the hon. Gentleman will know that it has already been agreed in principle that the federation--that is, Muslims and Croats combined--could have a special relationship with Croatia. That was agreed in Washington in February. We are saying that it may be possible for the parties to agree that there should be a fair, balanced and equal relationship between the Bosnian Serbs and Serbia.

That has to be agreed; it cannot be imposed. We are not suggesting for the Bosnian Serbs anything that is not available for the Croats and Muslims, but it may not be possible to agree on that. We are talking not about a confederation but about constitutional arrangements within the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There are certainly lessons to be drawn from all this, and when the war is over they will have to be drawn. I could easily detain the House for a long time talking about what they are, but our first priority must be to do what we can from the outside, which is limited. We must do what we can to create the ideas and pressures by which a negotiated settlement can be reached-- meanwhile, so long as we can, saving lives and keeping some kind of life flowing and continuing in the parts of Bosnia that we can reach.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), said, there is indeed deep and widespread admiration both for our troops and for General Rose, who is trying to perform his duties in an agonisingly difficult situation? However, if the UN cannot defend its own safe areas and if UN personnel are being taken hostage, it is true that the time may rapidly come when the position becomes impossible and we have to prepare for withdrawal. I am glad that the preparatory arrangements are always in hand.

Does my right hon. Friend also accept that, whatever is decided in Bosnia, it does not justify the tearing down and the destruction of NATO? Will he explain to his American opposite numbers and to some members of the American Congress that what their magnificent forebears and predecessors built up with us over 40 years for the security of the Atlantic and of Europe should not be idly torn down simply because there are disagreements over Bosnia?

Mr. Hurd: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. NATO is a collective security organisation, and its whole basis is that an attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us. That has to continue, because we continue to live in a dangerous world. Last week, in the NATO Council, we were devising ways in which that stability and assurance could be extended eastward to countries such as Poland and Hungary, while keeping or building up a partnership with Russia. That is the next NATO task.

What NATO is doing in Bosnia is trying to help the UN--enforcing a no-fly zone, which it has done, and seeking, as it has also done, to deal with the problems of heavy weapons--but always in consultation with the UN. That is a task that NATO has assumed in Bosnia, but it is not central to the continuation of the organisation.

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NATO is there as a collective security organisation, binding the two sides of the Atlantic together, and in our view it is essential that that should continue.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East): Arising out of meetings that the Secretary of State has had in the past week, especially those with senior members of the Clinton Administration, can he confirm that, if the withdrawal of our troops becomes necessary, there will be available to them the full and unstinted resources of NATO, including those of the United States?

The Foreign Secretary was right to draw attention to the entirely sensible observations of his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the fact that, away from Bihac, substantial good work can still be done. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that, as long as that work can be done and as long as the mandates of the United Nations can be substantially, even if not completely, implemented, British troops will remain? Indeed, can he confirm that the British Government will neither withdraw unilaterally nor argue for such a withdrawal?

Mr. Hurd: American participation in the withdrawal of the UN force would be essential; that is accepted in principle by the United States Administration. As I have said, the actual planning is in hand; I do not think that I can go further than that. The hon. and learned Gentleman is correct: we are not talking about and we are not contemplating unilateral withdrawal, as I said in my statement.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South): Will my right hon. Friend accept that, in the three years in which aggressive conquest has been building in greater Serbia, the international community in general, and the UN and NATO in particular, have had their credibility severely damaged? Now that everyone concerned, except the Bosnian Serbs, accepts the Contact Group's plan, should we not stop pretending to be impartial between the fire brigade and the fire? Would it not be appropriate for the Bosnian Serbs to be told that there will be massive retaliatory action from the air if they damage any further the concept of the safe area?

Mr. Hurd: NATO and the UN have worked out together ways in which NATO air power can be used to protect UN forces, to deal with heavy weapons in or around the safe areas and to enforce the no-fly zone. That has to be done with co-operation between NATO and the UN, because the UN is the responsible commander on the ground and only the UN can assess the impact on the ground of any particular action. That sometimes causes impatience among observers who especially favour stronger NATO action, but it is a reality which has to be accepted. That is compatible with the use of air power, as we have seen.

My hon. Friend, who has followed this matter with care and with fervent opinion through the years, somewhat exaggerates in his question the possible role of air power. Air power has its role, and I have just described what that role could be. The idea, however, that one can use air power to alter the policy of a Government or to bring recalcitrant people to the conference table is misguided, and has often proved to be misguided in the past.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): The Secretary of State may be aware that, during the summer

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recess, I spent four weeks driving a lorry in a relief convoy in central Bosnia. Does he accept that it would be absolutely impossible to deliver essential supplies to 3 million people living in the area without the protection and support of UNPROFOR and without the peace that UNPROFOR has achieved between the Bosnian Government and the Bosnian Croats?

Does he acknowledge that it would be reckless if all those achievements were jeopardised by the premature withdrawal of UNPROFOR as a result of statements by American politicians who understand little about what is happening on the ground in Bosnia? Has the Secretary of State had any indication from the Americans that they are prepared to deploy troops on the ground, or do they seriously think that they can solve the problem with air power?

Mr. Hurd: No, I have had no indication that the Americans would be prepared to put troops on the ground. The hon. Member, who speaks from experience, is right about what is being achieved in central Bosnia. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence confirms that. At the moment, convoys do not need military escorts because the roads are clear, but if the UN forces withdrew, those convoys would be at risk. That is one of the factors, although not the only one, that we have to weigh up.

The situation in Sarajevo is another. Last year, 1,500 shells daily landed in Sarajevo; they are now very rare. Sarajevo is not back to normal life by any manner of means--it is a skeleton town--but at least people are not being shelled and bombarded every day as they were before. Again, that is something that we must weigh up.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): Will my right hon. Friend further confirm the Government's full support and approval, in spite of American criticisms, for the key role being played by General Sir Michael Rose in Bosnia? Does my right hon. Friend agree that General Rose's combination of patience, courage and deep humanitarian concern is in the very highest traditions of British military prowess being deployed in the cause of peace?

Mr. Hurd: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I entirely agree with what he says. I saw the transcript of one particularly unjustified attack on General Rose yesterday morning by the Bosnian ambassador to the UN. I do not think that anyone will think the worse of General Rose because of that sneering attack. The only person of whom we may think worse is the person who uttered it.

I hold no brief for the Bosnian Serbs--they have shown themselves barbarous, brutal and often murderous--but the indignation and frustration at what they do, which builds up in all of us, especially, obviously, in their victims on the ground, should not lead us into rhetoric and illusion, let alone into attacking in words those who are doing their best to save lives in Bosnia.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): The response of the Contact Group to every Serbian advance or attack is simply to revise the Contact Group plan to make it more acceptable to the Serbs. Will the Foreign Secretary explain how that can give the Serbs an incentive to negotiate meaningfully? Surely they will not negotiate

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until they suffer military reversals themselves. Should not the western community be thinking about how to inflict such reversals on them?

Mr. Hurd: I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by introducing new concessions to the Bosnian Serbs. We have not done that-- [Hon. Members:-- "Yes."] No, we have not. We are on the same map, and we are talking as we did in the summer. The phrase about balanced arrangements, about which the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) questioned me, was there in the summer.

We are not claiming any privileged position for the Bosnian Serbs. We are talking about equitable and balanced arrangements inside Bosnia- Herzegovina, with its present frontiers. We are simply trying to find ways in which to put this, of persuading the Bosnian Serbs that they will not have a settled or accepted future simply by trying to hang on by force to the villages and towns which they now hold. President Milosevic is trying to do the same.

My own feeling is that this situation will turn in the right direction once President Milosevic brings, in one way or another, his fellow Serbs across the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina to accept, as he has accepted, that the only bright or durable future for them lies in accepting our plan.

Sir Peter Fry (Wellingborough): Would my right hon. Friend say a little more about the approaches that he has had from President Milosevic? From the outside, it appears that greater Serbia is nearer to reality today than it has been, perhaps, for many years. Therefore, is my right hon. Friend satisfied in his own mind that President Milosevic is not co- operating merely to see the sanctions against Serbia further reduced and because he has abandoned the idea of a greater Serbia? What does my right hon. Friend think?

Mr. Hurd: President Milosevic has his own reasons. Undoubtedly, the imposition of sanctions is one of them, and he is seeking greater relief. The French Foreign Minister and I made it clear to him that we saw no prospect of further relief of sanctions against Serbia simply because Serbia accepts the Contact Group plan. He has had a bit of relief, as my hon. Friend knows. Belgrade airport is open and certain events which were prevented are now possible; but the main bulk of sanctions cannot be lifted --we have made this clear to him--until the Bosnian Serbs have accepted the plan and until this agreement, which I mentioned at the end of my statement and which is very important, between the Croatian Serbs and the Croatian Government, is implemented.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): When is the Foreign Secretary going to realise that Britain, with its so-called grandeur of an imperial past, cannot poke its nose into the civil wars going on around the world? There are more than 25 going on at the present time. Why should any Serb, or a Muslim fighting another Muslim, believe that they have to listen to the authority of a broken-backed Government who cannot even control their own rebels, who have lost their majority, and who cannot raise their

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taxes? One thing the Government want to be sure of is that, if they came forward with any legislation, the chances are that they would lose that as well.

Mr. Hurd: That is the kind of utterance to which I am accustomed from Mr. Karadzic rather than from hon. Members.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Did my right hon. Friend detect any significant change in attitude on the part of the Russians, particularly at the meeting in Budapest of the conference on security and co-operation in Europe? Was there not some difficulty in concluding an agreed communique with them? If that was the case, does that extend to their attitude to Serb ambitions in the former Yugoslavia, and could it be an impediment to peace in Bosnia?

Mr. Hurd: We spent several hours on Friday night with the Russians in the Contact Group. The Prime Minister saw President Yeltsin on the first morning of the conference in Budapest. I had an hour and a half with Mr. Kozyrev, some of it alone, yesterday. I am perfectly clear that the Russians are working, like the Americans, French, Germans and ourselves, for a negotiated settlement on the basis of a 51 per cent./49 per cent. split in the map and what we agreed in the rest of the document.

The Russians believe that President Milosevic is entitled now to further relief on sanctions than the international community has given him. That is the main difference between us. They know that that is not realistic at the moment. They are working, therefore, for the success of the international effort that I have described.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby): Why is it that, in 1991, the British Government, along with the German Government, were not prepared to respect the integrity of the former Yugoslavia, yet now we are told that we must defend the integrity of a state, Bosnia, which is not viable and which really requires partitioning so that the Croats and the Serbs can have a special relationship with Croatia proper and Serbia proper? Why was it right in one case to defy the integrity of an internationally recognised state, whereas now it is not?

Mr. Hurd: I will not go back to the history of 1991, which I have often debated with the hon. Gentleman. If we look at the ethnic map of Bosnia, we see that it is really not practicable--in my view, at any rate-- to think of a partition plan. Leaving aside the morality of it, I do not think that it is simply practicable in effect, because of the way in which the communities are interspersed.

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's thesis. I have much sympathy with what the Bosnian Government in Sarajevo say about the matter. For years and years, those people lived together in the former Yugoslavia, with all its faults, under the kings and under the communists. They joined the same professions, and they served in the same army. They were not hating and killing each other.

Now that has disintegrated, but it has to be reintegrated. That is why I believe that it is right to say that there should be a country called Bosnia-Herzegovina and that

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those are its frontiers, but, inside it, there have to be arrangements in which the three communities can live together.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West): I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks about the use of air power. Will he refer all those who call for massive air strikes back to other occasions when we have had that ability-- for example, the Ardennes and Korea--when a beaten army on the ground was still able to inflict massive casualties on our armed forces? There is no solution that way. My right hon. Friend knows it, and we all know it.

My right hon. Friend said that there was no military solution. All rational people in this House, and indeed throughout the world, know that that is the case, but can my right hon. Friend say that the same will apply on the ground? We are not dealing with armies that are working on a control system. They are operating of their own volition. It is a case of order, attack, disorder, counter-attack and attack again. In those circumstances, what chance can there ever be of our achieving anything? For once, I agree with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--that, at the end of the day, the matter must be sorted out by the people on the ground.

Mr. Hurd: In answer to my hon. Friend's first point, there is a long history of over-optimism about air power. To the examples that my hon. Friend gave I simply add Iraq. We bombed Saddam Hussein intensively for a long time using the latest technology, but it was not sufficient to force him to withdraw from Kuwait. There is a long history of wishful thinking about air power, and it is sad that it has surfaced again, even among people whose experience should have taught them otherwise.

I agree with my hon. Friend's final point--indeed, I have made it often enough, and been accused of being an appeaser and a defeatist for doing so. The fighting will cease when those who are doing the fighting decide to stop and when there are no longer military leaders whispering in the ears of Bosnian politicians: "Don't compromise, don't talk, just give me a few more months and I will really smash the enemy." That advice has been listened to too often, and it is always wrong.

My hon. Friend is correct when he describes the intermingling and sometimes chaotic nature of commands and forces, and therefore the difficulty of having a tidy ceasefire. That is what the United Nations and the forces concerned frequently discuss and occasionally achieve. To a substantial extent, it has been achieved in the area where most of the British troops are deployed--in central Bosnia.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): Whilst accepting that all the units which have contributed to the UNPROFOR mission in the former Yugoslavia have performed their tasks extremely well, does the Foreign Secretary accept that this miserable and depressing episode reveals a deficiency in the way that the United Nations considers deploying force in support of Security Council resolutions? What thoughts and proposals does the Foreign Secretary have about finding a way to improve the delivery of force to support United Nations

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Security Council resolutions? What consideration has he given to the permanent convening of the Military Staff Committee of the United Nations?

Mr. Hurd: I think that the Military Staff Committee--which was set up in 1945 in quite different circumstances--is not the right body to deal with the matter.

The hon. Member is quite right, and I will send him details of the proposals that we have made precisely for the establishment of a proper general staff at the UN, so that all the efforts which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) scorns so mightily will have a chance of success.

Some efforts have failed, and some have succeeded, but problems will continue to arise, particularly in the form of savage civil wars in independent countries. The United Nations has to be better equipped with preventive diplomacy--that is the first thing--and, where that fails, with the quicker and more effective deployment of a force.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we face a problem in that we seem to be straddling two stools of humanitarian aid delivery and, to some degree, limited peacekeeping? As British forces are being taken hostage and our forces consistently come under fire, I press him to define slightly more clearly what he means by "unacceptable risk", given that the definition shifts continually and we must then change our sights each time.

Mr. Hurd: At the moment no British contingents are being held by the Bosnian Serbs or being prevented from moving, although other United Nations forces are currently in that situation. At the moment, the situation with our own forces has eased somewhat, although my hon. Friend knows that the problem might recur.

He knows the difficulty of defining "unacceptable risk". My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, his advisers and the whole Cabinet have to review it and weigh it constantly. We always tell the House the results of our striking the balance on each occasion.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is it not obvious that the Serbian warlords--many of them outright war criminals--are daily humiliating the United Nations and its authority, knowing full well that member Governments do not have the political will to resist what is happening in safe areas? Having listened to some of the exchanges in the House today, if one were to change the word "Bosnia" to "Czechoslovakia", it is easy to imagine what it must have been like in the House of Commons in 1938. The air of Munich pervades this place, which is very unfortunate when it comes to resisting aggression in other countries.

Mr. Hurd: That is a frequent but ludicrous comparison. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman comments out of ignorance, but he grotesquely over-simplifies the situation. He speaks of the "Serbian warlords". Is he talking about President Milosevic, who had a heavy responsibility for starting and abetting the war, but who is now seeking to prevent it? Or is he just talking about Mr. Karadzic, in which case I join with him?

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The comparison with Czechoslovakia and Munich is way out of line. We are seeking to get away from the type of illusion which the hon. Gentleman has, sincerely, promoted for a long time. Unless he shares the illusion about air power, he has never answered the question how the objective that he has stated is to be realised without the intervention of a huge semi-imperial army to impose a particular solution on the ground.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding): Does my right hon. Friend agree that two potential disasters must be avoided at all costs? One is a devastating humiliation of international law, and the other is a devastating humilation of NATO. Does he agree that it does not make much sense to signal to the Serbs that the worse they behave, the more likely it is that United Nations forces, which act as some constraint on their behaviour, will be withdrawn? Is it not a fact that it is an act of war to capture or take hostage troops of another power? Is it not about time that we made it clear to the Serbs that we make that interpretation of their recent behaviour?

Mr. Hurd: The job of the UN force has been clearly defined. It is defined in the Security Council resolutions, and it has been frequently defined by General Rose. He holds to that definition. People in relatively secure positions are always urging on him this tactic or the other. When he started, he gained a reputation for being tough with the Serbs. He gained ground in that way. Now he is being accused, wholly unfairly, of being over -soft and not doing all he could with the resources at his disposal.

The UN commanders are using to the best effect the resources at their disposal. I wish that there were more resources on the ground. I wish that the appeal which was made in resolution 836 and others had been listened to by more countries. I am glad that we and the French are the two main countries to have contributed. I hope that we can continue to do so.

I do not believe in changing the mandate so as to render the task impossible. I believe in maintaining the mandate and enabling those on the ground to maintain their work as best they can, which will not be perfectly, so long as they believe that the good that they are doing and the lives that they are saving outweigh the loss of authority that they are suffering.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): Does the Foreign Secretary understand that his latest statement reeks of further betrayal of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and of further appeasement of the Serbs of Pale and Belgrade? Does he understand that the advent of a greater Serbian confederation would be the final reward for aggression, genocide and ethnic cleansing? Does he understand that, if UNPROFOR is withdrawn, the troops will have to walk out, leaving behind their weapons and equipment, and that their humiliation will be entirely the responsibility of politicians in the UN, NATO and the European Union, who have consistently refused the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina the means of their self-defence?

Mr. Hurd: As far as I can tell from the hon. Gentleman's question, he suggests lifting the arms embargo and keeping UNPROFOR in place. He criticises both parts of our policy. His suggestion is wholly unreal.

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The idea that the west should start supplying one side in the war with arms yet seek to maintain a peacekeeping force in the middle of the war is completely unreal.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that events in Bihac have shown two facts which are uncomfortable for many hon. Members? They are, first, that those who claimed that United Nations safe havens were being used as launch pads for Bosnian Muslim aggression and should be demilitarised as quickly as possible have been proved right; and secondly, that talk of lifting the arms embargo has merely encouraged the Bosnian Government to continue fighting, much to their disadvantage, and scuppered the chance for peace.

Mr. Hurd: On the first question, the Security Council's resolutions on safe areas, resolution 836 in particular, did two things--appealed for more troops and, in a crisis, declared areas safe. In an orderly and logical world, one would wait until one had the troops before one declared the area safe, but the world was not logical. Bosnia was in crisis and the Security Council thought that it was important to do something at that stage to help and so it did that.

Of course it would have been better, and the situation on the ground would be more secure, if there were a fully equipped and organised United Nations force in Bihac, instead of 1,400 Bangladeshis and ditto in the other areas. Our troops are in Gorazde and the Dutch are in Srebrenica, but the response to the UN Secretary-General's appeal has never been sufficient.

On my hon. Friend's second point, no Government are pressing for the lifting of the arms embargo. There have been times when that moment approached, and times when the Bosnians pressed hard for it, but when they realised that it would mean the withdrawal of UNPROFOR, they said, "No, we don't want an immediate lifting of the embargo. We would rather put it off until the spring and see what can be done meanwhile." Although there is still support in principle for the lifting of the embargo, no Government are pressing for that immediately, and for very good reason.

Ms Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East): May I press the Foreign Secretary on what he said about the future of the safe areas? What future does he think there is in Bihac? Will he respond to the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) asked on what is being done to make the remaining safe areas safer for the future? Finally, can he give us assurances about the security and availability of supplies to our troops during the winter? We know from the long history of this situation that that is a difficult time for the troops and the civilian population. I am sure that we would all welcome reassurances on that score.

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