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Mr. Howard: Will the Secretary of State confirm that that statement does not endorse military action? Why does it not do so?

Mr. Robertson: The European Union is not NATO. The EU members who are in NATO made the declaration supporting military action, as one would expect.

Mr. Corbyn: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Robertson: No, I am afraid that I must continue if I am to answer the issues raised by my hon. Friend, and others.

Russia has figured largely in the debate, from quite surprising sources not known in the past to give much support to Russia's role within the world. This is an issue of some concern. British-Russian relations have improved markedly over the past two years, and we value those relations. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to the Russian Prime Minister Mr. Primakov earlier today. The Russian position is well known, but the discussions between the two Prime Ministers were perfectly friendly.

Hon. Members have asked about the military objectives of the Government and of NATO. They are clear cut; to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe by disrupting the violent attacks currently being carried out by the Yugoslav security forces against the Kosovar Albanians, and to limit their ability to conduct such repression in future. We have not set ourselves the task of defeating the Yugoslav army. We are engaged in an effort to reduce Milosevic's repressive capacity, and we are confident that we will achieve that.

Hon. Members have asked when the bombing will stop, and when we will assess that we have achieved the objectives. What happens next is essentially up to Milosevic himself. The next stage is there for him. At Rambouillet, the Kosovar Albanians signed up--in compromise to their principles and objectives--to a text that would have protected the integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Milosevic can agree to that deal at any time. If we are convinced that he is genuine, the air attacks will stop. The international community also expects Milosevic to show, in more than just a nominal sense, that he will stop the violence and carnage in Kosovo.

I wish to refer to the question of a legal base, which the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) dealt with in some detail. He made an interesting and valuable point which the House should bear in mind; that the principles of international law--indeed, international law itself--did not start with the UN. International law preceded the UN, and these principles are there whatever the UN charter says. They are clear.

There are those in the House who doubt that there is a legal base, and have questioned the legality of the action. The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark)--who has left the Chamber--asked a question about civil liability with which I wish to deal. We are in no doubt that NATO is acting within international law. Our legal justification rests upon the

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accepted principle that force may be used in extreme circumstances to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Those circumstances clearly exist in Kosovo.

The use of force in such circumstances can be justified as an exceptional measure in support of purposes laid down by the UN Security Council, but without the Council's express authorisation, when that is the only means to avert an immediate and overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe. UN Security Council resolution 1199 clearly calls on the Yugoslav authorities to take immediate steps to cease their repression of the Kosovar Albanians and to enter into a meaningful dialogue, leading to a negotiated political solution.

Several hon. Members asked for a precedent for attacking a sovereign nation from the air in the light of the legal provisions. That point has been answered by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who has more reason than most of us to know. I was here, at the Dispatch Box for the Opposition, when there were calls from all over the country and all over the world to save the Kurds who were being systematically exterminated by Saddam Hussein. The precedent, the principle and the emergency situation were the same, and we took action to save the Kurds. The no-fly zones are still in place, and thousands of Kurds who would not otherwise be alive today remain in them.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea asked about civil liability if any weapon were to hit civilian targets. I understand the legal position to be that no circumstances can arise from our actions that would give rise to liability for compensation for damage to civilian property.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater, the shadow Foreign Secretary, the shadow Defence Secretary and some of my hon. Friends all asked about strain on our armed forces. Even those who have not raised that issue in debate are concerned about that point. Ours are the finest fighting forces in the world, but they are involved in more active operations today than at any other peacetime period. Of course, the term "peacetime" takes on a new meaning in the dangerous post-cold war world.

Some have prayed in aid the Chief of Defence Staff's reference to planning assumptions in the strategic defence review. He gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence last July, saying that the assumptions are planning tools and that

As we explained throughout the review, we may, in particular circumstances, decide to do less than its assumptions provide for, or we may be able to do more. SDR planning was based on being able to mount two concurrent operations at full brigade level. Maintaining deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo will be very demanding but the overall forces involved are not of that order.

The Chief of Defence Staff is content with the current proposals. If we deployed, we would not be talking about indefinite deployment. As the situation improves, we will look to reduce numbers. After the likely replacement of the headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps with another headquarters, the numbers should fall markedly in that theatre.

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Several hon. Members have raised the issue of ground forces. Some have said that there is no solution that does not involve land forces fighting their way into Kosovo, or being part of a force that was doing so. The Liberal Democrats have chosen to talk about achieving some United Nations protectorate, and maintaining it with the land forces who would be opposed on entry to Serbia.

We have not set ourselves the task of defeating the Yugoslav army. We are engaged in an effort to reduce Milosevic's repressive capability and we will achieve that. We have no intention of sending ground forces into Kosovo except with the agreement of both parties. This is a limited military action with a strictly humanitarian objective, which we believe can be achieved through air strikes. We do not think that it would be right to escalate this into a major ground invasion, in which many lives might be lost and the humanitarian crisis could be made worse.

Sir Peter Tapsell: Is there a single general at the Ministry of Defence who has been prepared to advise the Secretary of State in writing that he believes that the stated objectives of the NATO command can be achieved by air strikes alone?

Mr. Robertson: It is the view of the chiefs of staff and the Chief of the Defence Staff that what we are doing is right, appropriate and achievable.

Sir Peter Tapsell: The Secretary of State has not answered the question.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman may disagree with me. I am the chairman of the Defence Council, and there is civilian control of the military in this country. In this case, they are in absolute agreement with the political decision that has been taken, not just by me or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom but by the Governments of all 19 NATO countries. I know that we are talking in the British Parliament and that we have British preoccupations, as we should because we are committing British forces to this endeavour, but this is a NATO operation. It has been planned, it has been debated and it has been the subject of consultation since last October and before. Military commanders from the Supreme Allied Commander Europe right down the chains of command in 19 countries have come to that conclusion. It is not for me or the hon. Gentleman to question their military judgment. At the end of the day, it will be for politicians to decide, having balanced all the factors. That is what I have and the Defence Ministers of those countries have done.

Hon. Members have expressed anxieties about what we are doing. Whatever position one takes, it is possible to express concern about the use of air strikes as the way to stop what we know will otherwise be a catastrophe, with ethnic cleansing, war crimes and the destruction of human beings, crops and villages. It is entirely possible to make such criticism, but what are the alternatives? I have not always agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), but tonight he made a passionate speech that I thought was right. He recognised the weaknesses and problems involved, but at the end he asked how we could live with the atrocities taking place and do nothing. He could not think of any other alternatives.

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What alternatives are there? We have tried diplomacy to exhaustion over the past year. Every chance has been given. It is in the self-interest of Yugoslavia and Serbia to accept the Rambouillet accords. The separatist movement in Kosovo has accepted staying within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It has compromised. What suggests to President Milosevic that he should not sign up to something so eminently sensible? A year after the diplomacy started, after all the chances, the killing goes on. They were doing it yesterday, and they would be doing it today if the attacks had not taken place.

We could try appeasement. That was the policy before the second world war. There were those who believed in it. Why do not we give them Kosovo?

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