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House of Commons

Wednesday 31 May 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]



That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn till Tuesday 6th June.- - [Mr. Wood.]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Wood.]

2.34 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): In the three weeks since the House last debated Bosnia, the position has qualitatively changed. Conflict has grown. The shelling of Sarajevo has intensified. UN soldiers have been deliberately targeted and killed by both sides. UN personnel, including officers and men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, have been taken captive by Bosnian Serbs.

The Government have decided to reinforce our contingent in Bosnia, and the diplomatic pace has quickened. For all those reasons, I thought it right to seek the recall of Parliament to set out the Government's response to this tense and dangerous situation. Let me recall for the House the evolution of this crisis. The dispute in Bosnia began to crystallise in the spring of 1992, when Bosnia declared its independence. War broke out, and the country split into three parts. I believe that it would have been wrong for us to stand and watch Bosnia burn, and we did not.

In August 1992, I convened the London conference which brought the parties together in search of a political settlement. We set up the Sarajevo airlift, and we were instrumental in establishing the United Nations protection force's Bosnia command. The first British troops arrived in Bosnia in November 1992. Let me remind the House why we sent them. First is the humanitarian case. I believe that we have a duty--a moral responsibility if one likes--to play our part in the relief of suffering. Soldiers were being killed, but we also saw civilian suffering in Bosnia on a massive scale. There was ethnic cleansing--cold-blooded and racial-based murders. There was widespread rape and brutality. As winter approached, there was the clear prospect of widespread starvation.

There had been nothing like it in Europe since the second world war. The aid agencies were doing their best, but they needed protection if the convoys bearing food and medicines were to get through. So we decided to play our part in providing that protection.

Bosnia is close to the borders of the European Union. Even so, precisely the same case for help was seen by countries as far away as Canada, Malaysia and New Zealand, all of which have joined us in the task. Service men and women of 19 nations have stood with our relief

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agencies and our troops to help alleviate suffering. Many who would have died are alive today because of that effort. We should understand that many alive today would die if that effort were to end.

Secondly, we sent our soldiers there for strategic reasons. The Balkans have often enough been a tinderbox in history, and war memorials throughout the United Kingdom testify to the price paid in British blood for past Balkan turbulence. The Bosnian war by itself might not directly affect our interests, but a wider conflagration across the Balkans--leading to a wider Balkan war--most certainly would affect our strategic interests.

If unchecked, the fighting in Bosnia could have ignited not only a Serb- Croat war in Croatia, but unrest in Kosovo and Macedonia. That could easily have dragged Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey into confrontation with one another. The Bosnian dispute has always contained within it the seeds of the nightmare of a wider Balkan war.

The consequences of a wider Balkan conflict would be disastrous for Europe as a whole. In my judgment, it is unquestionably in our national interest to prevent that if we are able to do so. The United Nations protection force and British forces may not have extinguished the fighting in Bosnia, but they have contained it and they have prevented it from spreading. That is a remarkable tribute to their efforts. Had they not been there, the circumstances we face today might have been incomparably more serious than those that we are debating this afternoon.

If it is in our national interest to avert a greater calamity in Bosnia and the Balkans, so it is for other members of NATO and the European Union. The strategic case and the humanitarian case were the twin reasons why I thought it right to commit British troops in 1992. Both those cases apply in equal measure today--which is why I expressly do not wish to see the United Nations protection force withdraw until or unless the risks become wholly unacceptable. I will describe in more detail the developments of the last three weeks. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary warned the House on 9 May that there was a real risk of a relapse into substantial war, in place of the ragged and uncertain peace of previous months. Since then, my right hon. Friend's words, sadly, have been borne out. There has been a chain reaction of attack and counter-attack by Bosnian Government and Bosnian Serb forces. Both parties have violated the Sarajevo exclusion zone by firing heavy weapons on to the confrontation lines and into the city itself.

On 24 May, the UN Secretary-General's special representative and the protection force commander made a further attempt to stop the escalating bombardment. They issued an ultimatum that certain heavy weapons should be returned to the collection points and other heavy weapons be removed from the exclusion zone.

When the Bosnian Serb army ignored that ultimatum, NATO carried out a successful air strike against an ammunition store near Pale. It did so at the United Nations' request.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Were the Russians consulted about the ultimatum? Were they consulted about the strike against the ammunition dumps? If not, would it not have been wise to do so?

The Prime Minister: That was, as it was intended to be, a decision on the ground. No individual national

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Government were directly consulted. There is a proper procedure for determining how such strikes are approved, and that procedure was followed. The troops are there as United Nations troops, with a United Nations commander who happens to be a British general, and they proceeded at the request of the United Nations. I believe that they proceeded correctly.

Shortly afterwards--in deliberate escalation--the Bosnian Serbs launched artillery attacks against the populations of Srebrenica, Gorazde and Tuzla. In the bombardment of Tuzla, 70 people were killed and 130 were injured. They were, I understand, for the most part innocent civilians in a marketplace--men, women and children going about their daily business. They were not armed combatants in the conflict.

Following a second NATO air strike against the ammunition storage complex on 26 May, the Bosnian Serb army began to take United Nations military observers and members of the protection force as hostages. Hon. Members will have seen, in the press and on television, that some of these hostages, in an outrageous breach of international law and of their status as United Nations peacekeepers, were chained to potential targets as so- called "human shields".

On 27 May, the Bosnian Serb army attacked and captured a French observation post at Sarajevo. The post was subsequently retaken, but one French soldier was killed, 11 were wounded and 10 were taken captive.

On Sunday 28 May, United Kingdom and Ukrainian soldiers were taken captive at Gorazde. Some of the Ukrainians were taken by Bosnian Government forces.

I have set out in this brief summary only the bare facts of the situation confronting the United Nations and NATO commanders on the ground, but there is no doubt in my mind that these events mark a qualitative change in the conflict, and one to which we and our partners have no choice but to respond very firmly.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): The House is listening intently, obviously, because of the British soldiers who are being held, but can the Prime Minister tell the House how he reconciles humanitarian aid given by British solders in blue berets with bombing attacks by American pilots in blue berets? Is it possible to combine humanitarian aid with a combative role? Is that not the question to which he should address himself?

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows precisely what has happened when the NATO attacks--not necessarily American: they are NATO planes--in these circumstances have been used, and they have been used as a deterrent to persuade the Bosnians that that sort of activity is not acceptable to the international community in any way whatever.

It is not very long ago--as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, for he will have hated this as much as anyone else did--that the nature of atrocities that we saw at the beginning of this war spread a darkening stain right the way across the conscience of the whole of Europe and the whole of the world as well. I believe, in these circumstances, that we have not only a right but an obligation to take the action that has been taken, to try to bring this conflict to an end and to end the suffering that so many people have faced in Bosnia.

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Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Does the Prime Minister agree with the French Prime Minister that the preparation of those air strikes was not good, and that it led to putting the peacekeepers at risk in a thoughtless way?

The Prime Minister: I said just a moment ago that I thought that it was right for the commanders on the ground to proceed as they did, and I have to say that I do not believe that I am prepared to second-guess the decisions of the commanders on the ground to whom those decisions were delegated, and I do not wish to do so. Let me now turn to the response that I believe we should make, and first to the matter that I believe is most upon the minds of the House this afternoon: the British and the other United Nations troops who have been taken captive and held hostage.

The situation is that more than 350 United Nations personnel--who, I remind the House, have been serving in an impartial humanitarian and peacekeeping role in Bosnia--are now being illegally held by the Bosnian Serb army. Of these, one is a Royal Air Force officer serving as a United Nations military observer, and 33 are officers and men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were taken captive last Sunday from observation points around the town of Gorazde, where 336 British solders are based.

Six--not five as previously reported--of the soldiers have apparently been injured in a road accident and are in hospital, although none of them, we believe, is in a serious condition. The fusiliers are thought to be in Visegrad and in both good heart and good health. The taking of United Nations peacekeepers as hostages is a despicable act, which has rightly been condemned around the world. It is without a shred of justification. It will win the Bosnian Serbs no favours and gain them no friends. It will guarantee unremitting hostility to them, and the certainty of pariah status and international isolation.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n): The Prime Minister will be aware that the whole House and those outside it--particularly in Wales--will be very concerned about the safety and welfare of the 33 young soldiers who have been taken hostage by the Serb aggressors. Will he tell the House today that whatever action he proposes to take will in no way endanger the safety of those young men, and that he will ensure that that action will be taken to secure their early release?

The Prime Minister: I will have something to say in a few moments about what we propose to do. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand why it would be neither wise nor prudent for me to say too much about the matter at this time.

Within hours of the capture of the British troops, we took steps to make it clear, directly and unequivocally, to the Bosnian Serb leadership that the safety of our troops in Bosnia is of vital British interest. We have told Mr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, that we shall hold him and General Mladic personally responsible for the well-being and the safe return of our troops. These words are not lightly spoken, and, as I shall explain, we are reinforcing our protection force contingent.

No one should doubt our resolve to secure the safe return of our soldiers. Yet, as we embark on the moves towards such a result, I hope that the House will understand if I do not go into detail about the courses that may be available to us.

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Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East): Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister: In a moment.

With the lives of British soldiers at stake, there will be a need for patience, a time for restraint, perhaps at times a need for silence. But if the silences are long, and if the requirement for restraint and patience becomes frustrating, no one in the House should imagine that those soldiers will be forgotten. The work to secure their release will be unremitting.

Mr. Hughes: Does the Prime Minister appreciate that eight members of the Royal Welch Fusiliers are at present unaccounted for? Does he appreciate that there is considerable concern among their relatives back home about their safety?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the observation post near Gorazde. I understand entirely the points that he has to make.

Let me turn to the reason why our forces are in Bosnia--and to what they are not there to do. Our troops have not gone to Bosnia to wage war, but even on humanitarian duties we have seen that they need protection. If they are attacked, they must be able to defend themselves robustly.

The protection force commander in Bosnia, General Smith, knows that he has our complete support. The protection force must be able to take whatever action is necessary in justifiable self-defence. When it does so, it will have the unqualified backing of the British Government--and, I believe, of the British nation.

To improve the protection force's capacity to defend itself, the Government on Sunday night decided to enhance the equipment and manpower available to the force.

At present, we have some 3,400 troops in Bosnia, protecting convoys and monitoring local ceasefires. A further 3,000 men and women from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are engaged in the airlift from Italy to Sarajevo; in NATO operations to police the air exclusion zone; in the joint enforcement by NATO and the Western European Union of the arms embargo and trade sanctions; and as contingency reinforcements on a carrier task group.

Anyone who has had the privilege of visiting any of those units, as I have, knows that they have carried out their peacekeeping tasks with scrupulous fairness and with a cool resolve--often in the face of provocation. I believe that we can be truly proud of them. But despite their military professionalism, the troops on the ground in Bosnia now need more protection, and the safety of those troops is, as I said, of vital national interest.

So we have decided to dispatch two artillery batteries and an armoured engineer squadron to Bosnia, totalling around 1,000 personnel. The first detachment, from 19 Field Regiment, left for Bosnia yesterday. Those units will increase our contingent's armoured capability. Crucially, they will provide artillery. They will be equipped with 12 105 mm light guns. That will provide the protection forces, for the first time, with the artillery that is now necessary as a deterrent and response to bombardment.

That does not mean that we are taking sides in the conflict. The protection force remains neutral, and it remains impartial. But, to defend itself, it now needs a capability to fill the gap between machine guns and air strikes.

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The Government have also announced that 24 Air Mobile Brigade has been placed under orders to prepare to deploy to Bosnia. The order to move will be given unless there is a clear and rapid improvement in the situation. We have proposed to the United Nations that the brigade, as United Nations troops, should come under the command of General Rupert Smith in Sarajevo. We are now discussing the details of the deployment with the United Nations.

Let me say a little more about 24 Air Mobile Brigade. It is a flexible, self-contained force of over 5,000 personnel. It is, as its title suggests, able to deploy very rapidly within theatre. Its equipment includes Army and Royal Air Force helicopters, Milan anti-tank weapons, artillery batteries, an air defence battery and engineer and medical support. We have constantly said that the safety of British troops is crucial; our readiness to deploy the Air Mobile Brigade is ample testimony to that.

Let me emphasise one point that I know is of concern to the House, which should not be misunderstood in the House or beyond it. The protection force is in Bosnia as an humanitarian and peacekeeping force. It is not there to impose peace, and it is not equipped or configured to fight a war. Those points are fundamental, and we do not intend that they should be changed.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): Does the Prime Minister accept that there will be widespread support, both in the House and outside, for the concept that not just serving the British flag but serving the United Nations is among the most honourable of tasks for our armed forces?

Although some may react by saying that, as soon as there is particular danger, the troops should be withdrawn, it is also true--given that these are among the best armed forces in the world, equipped to deal with particular danger--that many in those forces will regard the job they have started as a job that they would rather continue, if that is possible. Not necessarily success, but the attempt to bring about peace on behalf of the international community, is the reason why the forces are there, and the reason why the Government are right to support them in the way that the Prime Minister has announced.

The Prime Minister: I have indicated that I wish our forces to stay there, and I wish the United Nations protection force as a whole to stay there to carry out the job for which it was sent. That job is not yet concluded; I hope that it will be possible for it to remain. We see a strong case for reducing the vulnerability of United Nations personnel-- particularly the United Nations military observers, who have been in the most exposed positions. Some may need to be withdrawn, others concentrated and others given stronger protection. The commanders on the ground are best placed to determine precisely how that should be done, in consultation with the Secretary-General and, through him, with the Security Council. I understand that the Secretary-General will shortly be making his recommendations to the Security Council on the future role of the protection forces.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister: May I make a little progress?

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Our decisions have been warmly welcomed by the protection force and by other Governments. The contact group agreed on Monday that the protection force should have a rapid reaction capability. France, which at present has the largest contingent in Bosnia, has sent reinforcements to the Adriatic. Some other troop contributors are also thinking of strengthening their contingents.

Madam Speaker, those decisions are intended to help carry UNPROFOR through a dangerous phase. We hope that they will make it more secure, will help it to fulfil its tasks, and will deter further escalation. If we can damp down the level of violence and make progress towards a lasting cessation, at that point the protection force would no longer need the enhanced protection.

However, success for the protection force rests ultimately with the warring parties. I believe that, at this moment, Bosnia is at a turning point. It must be made clear to the parties that, if they turned to all-out war, the protection force would not be equipped to remain. It would be unable to carry out its tasks, and the risks to the troops of all nationalities would be unacceptable.

Withdrawal is not our objective; but our ability to handle withdrawal, if it is forced upon us, would undoubtedly be helped by the further deployment that I have announced to the House today.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): Before we commit more troops to that theatre who may suffer the same fate as the troops who are already there, will my right hon. Friend comment on the report that the Serbs have said that, if we agree to cease bombing, they will release the hostages? Is that report accurate? If it is, what are we doing to make NATO give us that assurance?

The Prime Minister: I yield to no one in my wish to have those troops returned safely to their units, but I am not entering into that sort of blackmailing deal.

Madam Speaker, in taking those decisions, we have unequivocally signalled our serious intent. We wish to see the protection force remain in Bosnia and continue its work. We wish to restore equilibrium to a situation that has become dangerously unstable. We continue to believe that only a political settlement will end the conflict. There can be no satisfactory and lasting military solution.

The way ahead may yet be rocky and painful. I know that many people, for good and understandable reasons, may advocate withdrawing the forces and, as I have said to the House, circumstances could arise in which that would become inevitable. But withdrawal is not a policy. No one should believe that leaving Bosnia would end the United Kingdom's interest in the conflict.

Mr. Morgan: I wish to put a question to the Prime Minister on behalf of the families of the 30 Welsh soldiers who are being held in Bosnia. Was it primarily the responsibility of the British Government or of the United Nations to have secured in advance some means of escape for those soldiers who were being held in the very difficult pockets of the further extensions of Bosnia in case things got extremely difficult--as they have done--and there was hostage taking? Whose responsibility was that?

The Prime Minister: I think that we have a joint interest in securing their release. Of course, their

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deployment is a matter that must be determined on the ground, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and the soldiers themselves would well know.

Let me turn to the possible consequences of withdrawing the protection force. If the United Nations left, what would be the likely outcome?

The first likely outcome is that the Muslim areas, including the eastern enclaves, would be likely to come under immediate threat. The bloodshed and loss of life could be massive. Before we sent troops three years ago, Bosnia was on the brink of genocide--of atrocities far worse than we have yet seen. If we depart, I remind the House that those dangers return. Could the west stand idly by and let such actions take place in south-eastern Europe? I doubt it; I truly doubt it. Would we ignore the threat of an all- out Balkan war? Again, I do not believe that we would or should ignore such a threat. Leaving Bosnia--if the protection force is forced to do so--is neither an easy nor a pain-free option. The threats would return if the United Nations protection force withdrew, and we and our allies would have to find other ways of responding to them--ways which could conceivably impose a greater financial and military burden on us than we are now carrying. Those who contemplate withdrawal must think very carefully about the humanitarian consequences and the strategic implications for European security.

At present, UNPROFOR is holding the ring. It must try to continue to do so, while we seek a political solution. Despite every effort by Governments and individuals--notably Lord Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg--the search for a negotiated settlement has been extremely frustrating. For months, progress has been blocked by the intransigence of the Bosnian Serbs.

Over the past week, we have been in close touch with our partners to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts and maximise the pressure on Pale. I have spoken to the Presidents of Russia, the United States and France, the German Chancellor and the Canadian Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has attended meetings of the contact group, NATO and the European Union, and this morning had further discussions with the Russian Foreign Minister.

As a result of those meetings, there is a renewed unity of purpose among contact group Governments. The Russian Government condemned the behaviour of the Bosnian Serbs in the strongest possible language. We wish to see an equally clear stance from President Milosevic. The contact group's emissary is in Belgrade today. If the contact group can secure the recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the former republic of Yugoslavia, fears or ambitions of a greater Serbia should be laid to rest, and the message to the Bosnian Serbs would be absolutely unmistakable.

I have tried to set out the situation as I see it. It is stark and it is serious, but we cannot avoid it. So I hope the word will go out this afternoon from all parts of the House that British peacekeepers, United Nations peacekeepers, must be released unharmed and unconditionally.

Let us show our forces, whether they are on land, at sea or in the air in the former Yugoslavia and the Adriatic, that they have the total support of the House. They have saved many lives. They have brought peace and hope and a semblance of normality to central Bosnia. They have

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prevented the spread of war. They are defending British interests and international security. Their courage and professionalism have earned the widest admiration. They deserve our wholehearted backing, and I commend it to the House.

3.7 pm

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield): We have offered our support to the Prime Minister in his action, as he knows. I believe that the more united the House can be on the issue, the better.

The whole House will want to send a message of the deepest support to those soldiers now taken hostage, particularly the 33 members of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the RAF officer. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. Their safety is our uppermost priority and their taking as hostages was a barbarous act of terrorism. It was in violation of every canon of international law and we join the Prime Minister in holding the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs personally responsible for their safe return.

The Bosnian Serbs lay claim to some understanding of national sentiment. They should be in no doubt about the national sentiments of the House and the British people, should any harm come to any one of those hostages. We would expect and demand the pursuit of those responsible without let or quarter.

It is worth reflecting on the conduct of British soldiers in this field of conflict. Some 13 have died and they have often borne the brunt of risk and danger. I believe that they have behaved throughout with conspicuous commitment and bravery and we have every reason to be proud of them.

We support the sending of additional troops as protection. As the Prime Minister has said, it will increase the military capability and options open to General Smith; in particular, 24 Air Mobile Brigade can provide further cover if necessary.

I believe that--perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence can say a little more about this in his speech--these troops need to have a clear chain of command and clear rules of engagement. The House would expect to have a clear assessment of that from the Secretary of State for Defence. Of course, in protecting British troops the reinforcements also increase the protection available to all United Nations troops, but we need to be absolutely clear about the terms on which our troops are operating and they must not be given objectives beyond their capability to achieve.

I believe that talk of withdrawal in Bosnia in response to the taking of hostages is deeply unhelpful at this time. It is hardly a message of firm resolve in the face of what is effectively an act of coercive blackmail.

The Bosnian Serbs must understand that they cannot fulfil their aim of an ethnically pure Serbian state by these means. Until they accept the route of diplomacy, they will remain outcasts on the international stage. We should not engage in any truck with them by which the release of hostages is in return for a pledge never to use our air power. That would be a mistake.

In the short term, as the Prime Minister said, our task is to secure the release of the hostages without rewarding the hostage taker.

Inevitably, this debate allows us to take stock of the medium and longer- term strategy in Bosnia. I think that

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the beginning of understanding in this matter--indeed, of humility--is to recognise that all options are fraught with difficulty and that there is no difficulty that is not vast in its character and complexity.

Undoubtedly, there have been errors of judgment and there has been indecision at almost every turn by the international community. The early recognition of Croatia without thinking through its evident impact on Bosnia is one example. We were too slow to recognise the need to deter the Serbian army and we were too hesitant when we did recognise it. The contact group has been plagued by divisions and by conflicting interests. The UN involvement has often developed in a piecemeal way, without adequate thought or support.

There is no doubt--there is no point in denying it--that this has been a profoundly unhappy experience for the international community. Yet, the errors and the uncertainty have arisen from the nature of the conflict itself. The choice is, has been and remains: do we stay out and let the conflict be resolved by force or do we become involved in order to provide at least a chance for a diplomatic solution to be found? However long this conflict goes on, that choice remains the same.

I can well understand that public reaction, especially now, favours the first of those choices. Many of our constituents look at this as a faraway war, indecipherable in its rights and wrongs and now putting at risk British lives. But consider the origins of this crisis and the origins of our involvement. There is no doubt that the basic cause of the conflict was the aggressive and violent attempt to bring about a greater Serbia from the ruins of the former Yugoslavia. To those who believe that Bosnia was always a nest of ethnic hatreds, incapable of peaceful coexistence between its different minorities I recommend "Bosnia: A Short History" by Mr. Noel Malcolm. Even allowing for the strongly held views of its author, it is a powerful rebuttal of that myth.

Our involvement began with those vivid pictures of ethnic cleansing, carried out with indescribable brutality. Bosnia is a country whose region borders the European Union; a country in the Balkans where conflict has often spread out to engulf neighbouring states and, indeed, the whole of Europe on occasions; a country whose boundaries were being changed by brute force by an aggressor that went unchecked.

Let us think back to September 1992 and the questions asked in the House at that time. We were warned of millions dying in the winter and of a refugee crisis that could sweep across western Europe. Of course, there has always been a danger that our international response would be governed by television news at any one point in time. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the debate on 9 May there was much criticism of the fact that the United Nations commanders had been overruled on the use of air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. Days later, such strikes were authorised, hostages taken and, of course, questions began to be put the other way around.

I do not believe, however, that the international community realistically could ever have walked away from Bosnia. Having become involved, there is no easy option of walking away. Even withdrawal, without some agreed solution, would be painfully difficult. Our forces may be under attack and the civilians pleading with us to

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stay. That is not a reason for staying if there are not other reasons, but it is something to weigh in the balance and we should do so.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford): We accept that the priority is to protect British troops and that the deployment of extra troops to do that task must have our full support. The right hon. Gentleman quoted Noel Malcolm. Does he agree that one of the points that Noel Malcolm would have made was that the unbalanced arms embargo, which did not allow the Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves, has in many ways created the problem and that we have had to step into the gap to do the job? Does he further agree that we should now lift that arms embargo to give the Bosnian Muslims the opportunity to defend themselves?

Mr. Blair: No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, although I understand why he put that point to me. I well recall our previous debates on that very topic and the concern--which I believe was justified then and is justified now--that lifting the arms embargo would increase the conflagration rather than limit it. However, I accept that such judgments are difficult.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey): I fully understand--as everyone in the House and the country understands--the force of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the humanitarian aspects of this desperate problem. However, bearing in mind the fact that there are terrible civil wars taking place in Angola, Cambodia, Kurdistan, Tibet and Chechnya, among others, is British foreign policy to be based on humanitarian considerations, resulting in our having to send armies to all the countries where civil wars break out? If not, what is it about Bosnia that makes it so different from all the others?

Mr. Blair: I do not believe that that is a compelling case for withdrawal from Bosnia and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. It is always possible to say that we should have intervened in other conflicts and there can be debates about that. However, the Bosnian conflict is in Europe and the consequences could spread to neighbouring European states. We have to make a judgment about where our national interest lies and take humanitarian concerns into account. I believe that that judgment is overwhelmingly in favour of involvement.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West): Three weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that there was risk of a war that would range the United States and Russia on different sides. If that was true and if there was such a foreseeable risk, is not it unbelievable that there should be any possibility of withdrawing our troops? Was not that argument simply thrown in to justify an intervention that at first hand was done on humanitarian grounds alone?

Mr. Blair: Those judgments are best made by those on the ground, but the hon. Gentleman should put that intervention to the Defence Secretary when he begins to reply to the debate. I have to say to him and his hon. Friends who are advocating, in effect, that we withdraw--that we walk away from this--that I do not believe that that would have been in the remotest way acceptable those two or three years ago when we first became involved.

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