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House of Commons

Tuesday 16 June 1998

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council Bill [Lords]

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

EU Troika Visits (Great Lakes and East Timor)

1. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): If he will make a statement on the EU troika visits to the great lakes and to East Timor. [44513]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): I apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is attending the Cardiff European Council.

The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), led a three-day EU troika visit to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 2 to 4 June. The troika had productive meetings with the Presidents of each of the four countries. It reiterated the EU's commitment to promoting stability; security; democracy; respect for the rule of law and human rights; and economic development for the benefit of the great lakes region.

The EU heads of mission troika visit to East Timor, scheduled for early June, has been postponed because of Indonesian security concerns. We hope to reinstate the visit as soon as possible.

Ann Clwyd: On East Timor, does my hon. Friend agree that there is now a real opportunity to solve the long-standing problem of that very unfortunate country? Does he agree that President Habibie's suggestion of special status for East Timor within Indonesia falls far short of the right of the people of East Timor to a referendum, to allow them to determine their future and choose self-determination if they wish, as is their right under international law and United Nations resolutions?

Mr. Fatchett: I very much agree with my hon. Friend's first comments. We now have a window of opportunity to

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make progress in resolving the long-standing issue of the status of East Timor. During my recent visit to Indonesia, I took the opportunity to make that point to Foreign Minister Alatas. I was pleased to note signs of movement in Indonesia--specifically, the release of political prisoners.

My hon. Friend will also be pleased to know that I had the opportunity to meet Xanana Gusmao, who talked to me about his views on the development of East Timor. He was in good health, and I asked the Indonesian Government for his early release, with that of other political prisoners.


2. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): What assessment he has made of the effect of his policy of dialogue with China on its human rights record. [44514]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): We believe that our policy of dialogue, which we have pursued both bilaterally and within the European Union, supported by practical assistance, is beginning to produce results. China has taken several positive steps which we hope will bring about increasingly close co-operation with United Nations human rights mechanisms and will lead to practical improvements in areas such as the administration of justice.

Mr. Baker: Is it not the case that promises by the present Chinese Government are not worth the paper on which they are written? Will the Minister accept that the present Chinese Government are characterised by a total disregard for human rights, as demonstrated by the imprisonment of political prisoners in so-called re-education camps, by the torture of monks and nuns in Tibet and by the eradication of most things Tibetan? Is it not the case that, by failing to pursue a UN resolution, the Government have virtually given the green light to the continuation of human rights abuses and told the Chinese that economic interests are more important than human rights? Although the Government may mean well, is that not in fact an ethical foreign policy in reverse?

Mr. Fatchett: The hon. Gentleman draws totally incorrect conclusions in the last part of his question. The Government continue to press the human rights agenda with China. At every available opportunity, we talk about the need to improve human rights. As I said in response to the hon. Gentleman's main question, there are practical signs of improvements that we have achieved. However, it would be foolish of us to say that all is well. There is a great deal more to be done on human rights, and we shall continue to argue strongly for it.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): I thank my hon. Friend for his response. The visit by the Chinese delegation arranged by the Inter-Parliamentary Union did a great deal of good in strengthening relations between China and the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend made a substantial contribution to that visit. Does he agree that such visits are the way to resolve the human rights problems and other issues in China? Long may the relationship between the UK and China continue.

Mr. Fatchett: It is important that we maintain and broaden the dialogue at all levels and take every

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opportunity to stress our concerns about human rights in China. I know that my hon. Friend, as part of the all-party China group, has taken every opportunity to speak about those concerns and to press the human rights agenda.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Is not China's human rights record still abysmal--in particular, as it relates to the one child per family policy, which enforces abortion up to full term and continues to discriminate against baby girls? When will the Government take much more positive action in their dialogue with the Chinese Government, who understand only force and pressure? Sadly, so far, we have seen no improvement in the human rights record.

Mr. Fatchett: I reiterate that we take every opportunity to raise those issues. I shall list for the hon. Lady what we have achieved over the past few months. We have persuaded China to sign up to the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. We have persuaded China that human rights in Hong Kong will be reported on separately. We have persuaded China to accept a visit from the United Nations High Commissioner, Mary Robinson. All those are successful steps forward. I am the first to admit, together with the hon. Lady, that there is a long way to go, but we believe that dialogue is the best way to make progress.


3. Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh): If he will make a statement on the situation in Kosovo. [44515]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tony Lloyd): We remain deeply concerned about the extreme violence and indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Kosovo. I visited Belgrade and Pristina last week and urged both the Serbian Government and the Kosovar Albanians to find a peaceful way forward. The contact group of Foreign Ministers met in London on Friday and agreed that, if Belgrade did not take steps without delay, there would be moves to further measures to halt the violence, including those that may require the authorisation of the United Nations Security Council. We welcome the meeting in Moscow today between Presidents Yeltsin and Milosevic. President Milosevic must realise that there will be no let-up in international pressure until he takes steps to end the violence and resolve the problems of Kosovo peacefully at the negotiating table.

Mr. Cunliffe: I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's statement and the initiative taken by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to bring world leaders together on this great humanitarian issue. Some people believe, however, that NATO shadow boxing will not bring that tyrant to his knees. Some of us think that a man who, for a decade and a half, has practised the detestable system of ethnic cleansing will not be easily frightened by such manoeuvres. Is it not time that we stopped pussy-footing around and issued an ultimatum to that gangster saying that unless he stops the repression in Kosovo, we will commence military action?

Mr. Lloyd: The contact group has already gone a long way beyond simple condemnation of the actions of the

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Government in Yugoslavia. The contact group and the European Union have already begun the imposition of an investment ban and an assets freeze. A ban on air flights from Yugoslavia is under consideration. NATO is considering what steps it can take. Yesterday, for example, Operation Determined Falcon took place in airspace not over Yugoslavia but over the neighbouring countries. That was a real measure of NATO's determination. I assure the House that contingency planning by NATO continues. President Milosevic cannot claim--and nor should the world believe--that he has not been properly warned.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Whatever the great provocation, will Ministers think very long and carefully before committing the British Government to supporting direct military attacks on Serbia unless that policy has the support of the Russian Government and the United Nations Security Council? We should bear it in mind that the Kaiser is a poor role model in such matters and that many countries in other parts of the world might be attracted to the idea of taking what they regarded as just military action if United Nations support was not always considered essential.

Mr. Lloyd: There is no doubt that the resolution of this situation is now in the hands of President Milosevic: he should end the violence now. He should withdraw the security forces from Kosovo and allow in the international monitors and humanitarian agencies. If President Milosevic takes that agenda on board, we will begin to make progress. That is the right way forward. However, I think the House understands that options have not been ruled out at this stage.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What exactly would be achieved by air strikes?

Mr. Lloyd: My hon. Friend enters the realm of speculation. Actions have not been ruled out: at this moment, NATO is examining all credible options. However, the resolution of the present crisis clearly lies in the hands of President Milosevic. If he does the things that I have outlined--if he makes it clear that he intends to enter into meaningful and time-limited dialogue with the Kosovar Albanians--we will be able to resolve the crisis instantly. Beyond that, I shall not stand before the House and say that we are prepared to rule out credible options at this stage.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Does the Minister agree that the diplomatic steps taken today will work only if President Milosevic discontinues his brutality towards civilians in Kosovo and accepts that the status quo is no longer an option and that the autonomy of the province is inevitable? If those diplomatic steps are effective, will it not be another illustration of the principle enunciated earlier this year by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, that diplomacy is at its most effective when it is supported by a credible military threat?

Mr. Lloyd: We have received some reports of today's meeting between Presidents Yeltsin and Milosevic. For example, it is reported that President Milosevic has agreed to negotiate with the Kosovar Albanians, but at present it

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is impossible to say whether that amounts to anything new. In that context, we await confirmation from President Milosevic. The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right: if we were to say at this stage that we will not contemplate certain credible options, we would be playing into the hands of President Milosevic, and--I must also say--the extreme voices among the Kosovar Albanians.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Will the Minister assure the House that any action taken will be consistent with the United Nations charter and will be designed not to inflame existing tensions in that very difficult region? Will he assure the House that further assistance will be given to the Government of Macedonia and that steps will be taken to assist the refugees who are at present in Albania--as well as other measures that may be necessary in order to try to resolve the conflict?

Mr. Lloyd: My hon. Friend has asked several important questions. Britain has certainly been active in seeking to bring a resolution before the United Nations Security Council. However, the actions taken by the international community will depend very much on the circumstances on the ground at the time. They will determine what actions are acceptable and permissible. The position of Macedonia, with its large number of permanently resident Albanians, requires considerable attention. We need to ensure that Macedonia has the monitoring that it needs, which will include a continuation of the military presence in that monitoring operation.

My hon. Friend asks about the position of displaced persons already within Kosovo and elsewhere in Yugoslavia. The best answer to that would be if the humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross were allowed in and enabled to do the work that they do better than anybody else.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): Can the Minister tell us anything about the progress of the European Union monitoring mission? The hon. Gentleman will know that I asked the Government to take a lead in pressing for monitors to be allowed into Kosovo as long ago as 10 March. Has any progress been made?

Will the Minister now answer the question that he has twice failed to answer: do the Government accept the view that no military action can take place without the authority of a resolution of the United Nations Security Council?

Mr. Lloyd: I pressed exactly that point with the Yugoslavian Government last week. At present, they have not given the freedom for monitors to travel that we expect of them. At a European level, we are prepared to deploy 18 more monitors immediately, with more to follow in due course. The spirit of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question is absolutely right. We need monitors on the ground so that we can be assured that violence against the civilian population has at last come to a halt. That is a necessary precondition for all else to follow.

In terms of action at the United Nations, Britain is extremely active in seeking a suitable resolution. However, the exact course of action that will be taken by

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the international community in the end will depend on the circumstances that confront it at the time when that action takes place.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): So that there be no misunderstanding, is it the position of the British Government that we believe that Serbia should retain sovereignty over Kosovo?

Mr. Lloyd: So that there be no misunderstanding, let me say that the position of the international community has been consistent. We have called for meaningful negotiations between the Government in Belgrade and the Kosovar Albanians, under the leadership of Dr. Rugova, on the basis that there must be autonomy for the Kosovar Albanians within the context of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

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