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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 January 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

St. Helena

1. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): If he will restore full British citizenship to residents of the island of St. Helena. [64585]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tony Lloyd): The issue of British citizenship for all residents of United Kingdom overseas territories who do not already have it is being considered as part of our review of policy towards the overseas territories. The issue will be covered in the overseas territories White Paper, which we expect to publish soon.

Mr. Russell: I am sure that we all welcome the early publication of the White Paper, but can the Minister give any reason why the 5,500 citizens of St. Helena should not have restored to them the full British citizenship that the islanders enjoyed for more than 300 years, before the Conservative Government withdrew it in 1981? Surely the islanders deserve an early return to full British citizenship.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Lloyd: I am very pleased to hear members of the official Opposition cheering on the hon. Gentleman. When all is said and done, it was they who took away that right from the St. Helenians, and he is absolutely right about that. I think that he would be happy to acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it very clear for a long time that the issue of citizenship will be treated constructively and sympathetically, but I must tell the House, and those outside who show a keen interest in the matter, that it is still, I am afraid, necessary to wait for the White Paper, which will be published soon.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): While the Minister is considering citizenship for the St. Helenians, will he also recognise that they have grave concerns about their transport links? Is he aware that, in order to attend a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference--which hon. Members of all parties attended, including me--a delegate from the St. Helena Parliament had to

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travel for three and a half weeks by ship to Cardiff? Even more urgently than citizenship, the people of St. Helena need an airstrip.

Mr. Lloyd: It may be that, in this case, the people of St. Helena speak for themselves better than the hon. Gentleman speaks for them; when they meet me and other Members of Parliament, they may say that transportation is important, but citizenship is always the issue that they raise first. A review of transportation links is taking place. All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman, and through him to the House and the world, is that the most important thing is to ensure that there is adequate communication. The existing ship that sails regularly to St. Helena must be a long-term part of the island's transportation structure, and we want to do nothing to threaten the viability of that sea route.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): Is my hon. Friend alluding to the charge that many of us made against the then Government, that in 1981 the citizens of St. Helena and other dependent territories were treated cynically as pawns, to ensure that that Government did not face continuing embarrassment over large influxes into the United Kingdom of residents of Hong Kong when Britain was negotiating the handover of that territory?

Mr. Lloyd: My hon. Friend castigates the official Opposition in their former role as the Government better than I can, but I can assure him that their days in government are now receding rapidly into the past and that it will be a long time before the British people give that failed party any credence and trust them again with the onerous burden of government.


2. Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): What assessment he has made of the prospects for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe verification mission in Kosovo. [64586]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): The courage and commitment of the Kosovo verification mission have brought stability to the lives of many in Kosovo by brokering local ceasefires and assisting in the return of refugees. It was months before the world knew the full truth about the massacre in Srebrenica. Thanks to the Kosovo verification mission, we had clear, accurate and reliable information within 24 hours of the atrocity at Racak, and as a result we were able to secure immediate universal condemnation of the massacre.

We deplore Belgrade's decision to designate as persona non grata the head of the Kosovo verification mission, Bill Walker. I have today spoken with both Madeleine Albright and Knut Vollebaek, the current president- in-office of the OSCE. We are all agreed that Bill Walker will stay at his post and continue the work that he is doing with distinction. It is not for President Milosevic to decide who will head the international team.

Mr. Bell: In planning the way forward, is the Foreign Secretary aware of one of the lessons of the Bosnia

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experience, that persuasion by itself achieves little and that the threat of force, to be effective, must be matched by a willingness to use it?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I said to the House yesterday, the NATO planes remain on 96-hour notice and the actord--activation order--remains in force and requires only one political decision to trigger it. We showed last time that we had a credible threat of military force, or we would not have secured the agreement. We are now determined that President Milosevic will honour the agreements that he made.

Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh): Is it not clear that President Milosevic has broken every undertaking and assurance given to the International War Crimes Tribunal? Is it not evident that he has no intention of co-operating? What positive action can be taken to punish his flagrant violations?

Mr. Cook: General Clark and General Naumann, the two top North Atlantic Treaty Organisation generals, are currently in Belgrade for discussions with President Milosevic. They will report tomorrow to the North Atlantic Council, which will consider appropriate steps in the light of any assurances that President Milosevic gives. I echo my hon. Friend's reference to the International War Crimes Tribunal: it is vital that it is given access to Kosovo so that it may carry out an independent investigation of what was plainly an atrocious war crime.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): It is clear, is it not, that, but for the presence of the official monitors, the sort of events that occurred last weekend in Kosovo might have been repeated elsewhere on many occasions? When General Wesley Clark talks to Mr. Milosevic today, does he do so with the full political and military authority of NATO? In particular, can the Foreign Secretary assure us that military planning for every eventuality is occurring, covering all options including deployment of troops on the ground?

Mr. Cook: I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that General Clark has the full authority of NATO; he is, after all, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and he went at the request of the North Atlantic Council following its meeting on Sunday. General Clark's mission carries the full authority of NATO.

Preparations continue, and they have not ceased, on what might be the appropriate military response if one is required. However, there would be grave reservations about committing ground troops in the absence of a clear agreement between the two participants in the conflict on a political outcome and a political track. To put in ground troops without a commitment on both sides of the political process would be to put in ground troops without a clear political objective.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): A uniformed police force in Europe is murdering its own citizens in cold blood with the full support of its Government. Like the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), I had hoped to have seen the last of that sort of thing in Bosnia, and that lessons had been learnt from that conflict. As President Milosevic has comprehensively reneged on

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the agreement that he made with Richard Holbrooke, can we rely on NATO to take whatever steps may be necessary to degrade or restrain the forces that are perpetrating atrocities?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend can certainly have an assurance that NATO remains fully engaged, fully prepared and fully ready to take whatever action is judged to be necessary. I must remind him that, as has been said already, the presence of the verification mission in Kosovo has prevented such atrocities from occurring much more often than they have. Were we to contemplate going down the road towards military action, the first thing that we would have to consider would be the withdrawal of that verification mission.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): Has not the situation in Kosovo deteriorated, even since the Foreign Secretary's statement at the Dispatch Box yesterday? The Prime Minister's official spokesman was quoted yesterday as saying that there was little scope for early military action. How can that be reconciled with the statement of a State Department spokesman that NATO would very quickly have to make a decision to use force? How can it be reconciled with the repeated threats of force made by the Foreign Secretary? Does the presence of the verification mission not imply that action will be taken if the mission is not allowed to do its job? What action will be taken if President Milosevic refuses to submit to the demands made by the Foreign Secretary yesterday, and repeated today?

Mr. Cook: First, I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I met my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday and discussed with him with great gravity the options available to us. As I said yesterday, NATO has sent its two top generals to Belgrade to repeat to President Milosevic our demands for full compliance. President Milosevic knows full well what NATO had prepared last time round in October when military action was prepared. The actord that authorised the commanders to carry out that action remains in force. It requires only one decision of the North Atlantic Council to start the process, and the council will meet tomorrow to hear the report of the two generals.

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