Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)



  380.  That is very persuasive but how about the other side of that coin? The Kosovar fighters: have we actually got arrangements with the Kosovar fighters that during this NATO intervention they will actually not take advantage of it?
  (Mr Robertson)  We cannot have that. They are engaged in their own particular battle. They have gone the distance in terms of compromising their overall objectives at Rambouillet. We have no more hold over them than we have over the Serbs, but the heavy artillery, the ability to destroy villages, to wipe out communities, is very much in the hands of the state apparatus of Yugoslavia and of Serbia. The call to stop the violence is one that goes to both sides. We are not here saying that the guns that are fired from one side are better than the guns fired from the other side, but the overwhelming force is on the side of the Serbs. It is also worth making the point that there is information in print in public that there is quite a bit of dissatisfaction inside Serbia with what is going on, that they are finding t difficult to call up the troops in the numbers that they are requiring at the present moment. The Chief of the Defence Staff was removed from his job within the last six months because he would not co-operate in every detail with President Milosevic. There are indications that some people question this suicidal policy and hopefully in the next few hours more people will be giving that message.

  381.  If we are so competent, Secretary of State, everybody is asking, why have we not picked Milosevic up? What is it that this man has got, what capabilities has he got, that he can keep on avoiding being picked up by us? We can talk about competence all the way along the line. Why is he not at The Hague?
  (Mr Robertson)  If it were that easy, Ms Taylor, then all of those who are indicted for war crimes would be in The Hague. If you are running a state like Yugoslavia or Serbia today, you are pretty well protected in personal terms. I think the bombshell that would be required would be immeasurable. Those who are indicted, those who are responsible for war crimes, will eventually be at The Hague—I can say that with confidence—and they should not sleep easily in their beds thinking that they have got away with it or they will not eventually have to face justice. In the last two years since I have been in charge we have been responsible for a very significant number of people picked up as indeed have other nations. A very significant number are facing proper justice at The Hague. Some have been discharged, some have been found not guilty, but other people have faced the justice of the international community for crimes beyond belief and description. Ultimately all of those who have been responsible will be there as well.

Mr Cohen

  382.  Secretary of State, I know you have said it this morning and the Prime Minister said it yesterday, that this is being undertaken with enormous reluctance. Can you give a judgement about the possible loss of life involved in such military action, including possibly to British service men and women? How does that compare to what would happen in the humanitarian disaster if no action was taken? Also, could you say whether NATO has consulted Russia and what their reaction is likely to be to air strikes? Finally, is there any proposal to take this matter back to the UN for discussion there?
  (Mr Robertson)  The question of loss of life and of casualties is one of the biggest issues of all we face. I am a civilian, I am a Member of Parliament like you are. I have no military background, no military career, but at the end of the day i have to take decisions based on the advice that is given to me by people who have faced action, who have been in conflict, and who are properly conscious of the responsibility for the young men and women who are in their charge and whom they send into these dangerous situations. They will tell me that there is the prospect of casualties. They rightly warn that we cannot have a casualty-free war. This is not a war, but any conflict that involves military action is not going to be casualty-free. It is one of the risks that you have to balance against the large scale loss of life that would be the consequence of doing nothing. Indeed, the strategic consequences of political and every other term that would flow from the fact that where there was a conflict we stood back and did nothing about it. That is a balance that has to be taken and the air crew and ground crew who are in Italy today facing the prospect of being sent into action know that well. They face it with remarkable courage. I salute their bravery and I do not send them into action with anything other than the realisation that the alternative is much worse.


  383.  Having clarified their legal status, I presume there will be no formal declaration of war.
  (Mr Robertson)  It is not a war.

  384.  If a NATO pilot is shot down or vice versa, what under the Geneva Convention or anything else can downed pilots demand under international law?
  (Mr Robertson)  The full protection of the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions are not tied to a declaration of war. All parties to any conflict must be bound by the Geneva Conventions and we would expect that Yugoslavia would do that if there was any situation that arose there at all. This is not a war. We are not declaring war on Serbia. We are not bombing Serbia. We are damaging the military capability to destroy civilians in that part of the world, but those who do that, and after all they are acting not just in accordance with international law but in the interests of international law, would get the full protection of the Geneva Convention.

  385.  Will you be taking it back to the UN?
  (Mr Robertson)  Russia is clearly a factor in this. We must remember that Russia is a full member of the contact group, so that all the processes that we have been engaged in up to now Russia has been fully subscribing to. The Security Council Resolution 1199 that laid down the demands on Milosevic last October were subscribed to by the Russians as well. They were involved in the outskirts of Rambouillet as part and parcel of the structure that led up to it. So far as we know, they have recommended very strongly to President Milosevic that he accepts these agreements as being in his own best self-interest and indeed in the interests of the wider area. The Russians have said that they object to military action. They seem to think that more negotiations will produce an outcome. I do not know whether they are sanguine about the violence that continues while these so-called talks take place, but they are perfectly entitled to their view. We disagree with them and that is why we are taking action. It is action taken in pursuit of UN Security Council Resolutions, two of them but particularly 1199, which laid down the demands which are quite clearly being flouted by Milosevic today. You asked about taking it back to the UN. Clearly, if the Rambouillet agreement were to be signed up to, we would want to enshrine that in the UN Security Council Resolution. In the meantime there is more than adequate legal standing without going back. The situation is of considerable urgency, given the nature of the bombardment that the Kosovar villagers are suffering at the moment.

Mr Brazier

  386.  Secretary of State, you stated NATO's objective very clearly several times. How will we measure the success of the operation?
  (Mr Robertson)  It will be a matter for the NATO military authorities to look at the battle damage that has been done, to make an assessment about how much of the air defences and other targets have been hit. Then we watch on the ground what the forces are doing. I do not think you would want me to venture into the territory about what we would attack because that would be of some help—limited help but some help—to those who might be the ones involved in the action on the other side.

  387.  Of course not, Secretary of State, I would not do that. Without asking in any way for you to indicate what sort of targets we are talking about, my question really is, will you measure the success in terms of damage to targets, whatever they may be, or in terms of Serbian behaviour afterwards?
  (Mr Robertson)  The objective is to reduce the capability so that he will reduce the level of violence, so we will make assessments based on that, both at a political and at a military level about that. I would not want to go beyond that at the present moment. A lot of planning has gone into this whole operation. Another thought that comes to mind in relation to Mr Cohen's question, which relates to this, is that we of course have updated the United Nations Security Council at every stage on what is going on here.

Ms Taylor

  388.  Secretary of State, this "what if" question: is there a chance that NATO's action now could lead to a north/south partitioning for Kosovo with the north being in Serbian control, being ethnically cleansed, and the south a UN protectorate? Is there a chance that we could end up with this outcome and would you be content if that were the outcome?
  (Mr Robertson)  The answer to that question is no. The answer to the first question is that it is impossible to tell. The Rambouillet agreement is the ideal. That is what was negotiated. The Kosovar Albanian side have made very substantial concessions on what we know to be their objectives in agreeing to that. That keeps the integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and allows a huge degree of autonomy for those who are in there, more autonomy than they previously had under the old Yugoslav constitution, which is where all this started when Milosevic tore it up. It may be that President Milosevic is undertaking a de facto partitioning at the moment. Mr Blunt raised that possibility at the beginning. That is not our intention, but it is difficult to read his mind in every regard except that we have seen in the past that he respects military power. We know that his regime depends on the military structures and that in the past when he has believed that we have threatened that military power, he has been prepared to back off, both in the Bosnian conflict, and indeed in the earlier part of this conflict. That is an ingredient that has to be taken into account when we go down that route. The Rambouillet agreement did not allow for partitioning and we believe that, just as the Serbs and the majority of the Albanian population used to live in peace and contentment inside the autonomous Kosovar structures under the old Yugoslavia, it is not impossible for them to do it again.

Chairman:  It has been said that Milosevic is both the arsonist and the fire brigade. He will have to prove that the second part is going to be valid in future because he is the one who can stop the carnage in his own territory.

Mr Blunt

  389.  Secretary of State, you suggest that my reserve service might be called upon.
  (Mr Robertson)  This was not a serious remark.

  390.  Let me make the serious point that I want to, that if I found myself back in an armoured reconnaissance squadron with the full weight of NATO air power and artillery support available to those forces taking on a JNA, I would be rather more sanguine about my chances of survival than I would have been when I was facing the Eighth Guards Tank Army on the German border. I actually think that if there was a proper land/air campaign with the enormous difficulties of all the support that the Rear Admiral mentioned, the number of casualties on the table would not be as high as one would expect. It would be a situation rather akin to the battle in Kuwait. The Government have ruled that out as an option for the time being.
  (Mr Robertson)  NATO has ruled that out.

  391.  What I would like to explore is the relationship with the KLA who are an armed force on the ground. In your words, Secretary of State, you said that the KLA had gone the distance by reducing their aspirations from that of independence, but for a very long time the Kosovars have sought by democratic means to pursue their right of self-determination and any democratic opportunity for that was denied to them by the Serbians. So I believe what they are fighting is a justified liberation struggle. They have now gone the distance, in your words, at an international conference. What is our relationship now with the KLA? Surely, in a sense we are now on their side? I do not understand what the NATO Secretary-General means when he says, "We urge in particular Kosovar armed elements to refrain from provocative military action", when it is their people who are being ethnically cleansed and are the victims, in your words, of crimes beyond belief and description. Is there now an opportunity to at least co-ordinate our military actions with the KLA? What do you think is going to be the future of our relationship with armed elements on the ground in Kosovo?
  (Mr Robertson)  The provocation that the UN Secretary-General was talking about was the offensive actions taken by the KLA who are a part of the Kosovo Albanian population which collectively signed up to the accord. It is right to say they should not be engaged in provocation. Up until Racak earlier this year the KLA were responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than the Yugoslav authorities had been. The call all along has been for the end to violence on both sides and seek the diplomatic channel. They signed up to their cause including the disarmament aspects of the Rambouillet agreement and I think that is a very significant move and I hope they hold to that and there are not wilder elements that seek to break up the unity that appeared at Rambouillet. We recognise the threat to the Kosovar Albanians. That is why we are willing to take action. We are not siding with the KLA whose longer-term objectives we may not subscribe to at all.

  392.  Again as part of the agreement they have now signed up to objectives which we do support.
  (Mr Robertson)  But I do not think that puts them on our side if they are doing things that we would disagree with there. What we are doing here is trying to protect the civilian population of Kosovo. That is what they say they are doing as well. We are willing to take that action because the other side is not willing to see the commonsense or even the self-interest that would be involved in signing the agreement. I do not think it would be right and proper for NATO to say, "They have signed up to the agreement, we will therefore take their side on that." Our objective has got to be very clear and very narrow when dealing with another sovereign state and that is the emergency situation of averting a humanitarian catastrophe, not taking sides in an armed struggle.

Mr Cann

  393.  You have made it very plain that it is military targets only and we are going to use precision on those targets. We all accept, of course, that civilians must be avoided at all costs. There is no point protecting civilians in Kosovo if we kill civilians in Serbia. So we come down to the question of accuracy. The Harrier GR7s, for example, have got a very good track record but there have been doubts expressed about the accuracy of Tomahawk missiles and if the track record is anything to go by we will be using those first to take out their capability to damage our aircraft which we will use later. How confident are you a) in the accuracy of Tomahawk missiles and b) since it is the first time a British submarine will have fired any in anger whether they are trained in their use?
  (Mr Robertson)  I am not saying whether we are using Tomahawk missiles at all, but if you are asking about the capability of the system, test firing took place in September of last year and very clearly verified accuracy over very long distances of this particular system. Since I have got an Admiral here it seems to me appropriate for him to answer that particular question.
  (Rear Admiral Moore)  It is a very capable system but the missile is so good and so intelligent itself that in fact the crew prepare and fire it and the missile is then programmed to go to the target. It is the missile system in which the accuracy lies more than in the residual capability of

the submarine.

  394.  But the missile itself is 100 per cent accurate? 90 per cent? 95 per cent?
  (Rear Admiral Moore)  I do not think we want to go into that at this stage but it is a very accurate system.


  395.  We are looking at pictures afterwards.
  (Mr Robertson)  There are unclassified pictures from Operation Desert Fox that leave you in absolutely no doubt at all that this is a formidable system both for the punch that it has and the accuracy that can be deployed and therefore the lack of collateral damage that would affect people who are not party to a conflict. Anybody who has seen the unclassified pictures of the Ba'ath Party headquarters in central Baghdad with 11 Tomahawk cruise missile holes like holes on a golf green destroying everything within that building but leaving no damage at all outside the building will realise that when we are talking about this, it sounds cold, it sounds clinical and there are some people who are deeply uncomfortable about even entering into a conversation about it, we are now at a time when international law and public feelings demand precision in what we do and therefore the attacks, if they take place and they have to take place, will be against military targets with some of the most precise weapons that have ever been invented.

Mr Colvin

  396.  The evidence of the previous stand-off crisis showed that Milosevic's position has not been weakened but strengthened domestically and I am not convinced that the air strikes that are now planned are going to do anything more than strengthen domestic support for him. No doubt he can invoke Article 51, the self-defence article, to justify the calling up of we read in the papers one million reservists to reinforce his 209,000 regular troops. There are an awful lot of "what if" questions this morning but what provision has been made by NATO for calling up additional troops to cope with a ground operation when we know perfectly well from previous experience of fighting in Yugoslavia the ratio of defenders required especially if you have got a sympathetic civil population on your side who do not receive regularly CNN and Sky News and the all the rest but are bombarded with domestic propaganda from Milosevic? What provision has been made for the numbers that are going to be required? Has any estimate been made of the numbers of ground troops that would be required if a ground operation were required? I think the Prime Minister's estimate yesterday of over 100,000 was the understatement of the year, quite frankly. You are talking about ten times that, are you not?
  (Mr Robertson)  The Prime Minister gave an estimate and the NATO military authorities have done a lot of planning on the basis of it. It is certainly in excess of 100,000. You have to work out yourself where they are going to come from. You cannot call up reserves and you cannot use conscripts because if you were ever to get engaged in that sort of conflict, and we are not planning to get engaged in that sort of conflict, you have got to have troops that can protect themselves from day one and not build themselves up. We are dealing with an urgent situation and that is why the NATO commanders have taken the role that they have taken. They said before Operation Desert Fox that any bombing on Iraq would consolidate Saddam and make him stronger as a result of that. In fact, he is much weaker. His military machine was damaged very substantially and he could not even produce a civilian casualty to parade on the streets to show how wanton we had been in the bombing that he claimed we were engaged in. So the damage has been done. He is not stronger, he is weaker and there is a lot of evidence coming out of Iraq in the past few weeks that he has been executing senior army officers because they themselves are now questioning what he is doing and may well be organising coups against him. So I do not think this assumption that dictators are strengthened by the fact that military targets are attacked holds water at all. Milosevic is finding it very difficult to get people to be called up. There were demonstrations the other day in Belgrade of mothers of existing soldiers complaining bitterly about them going to Kosovo. There is a huge reluctance to get engaged in this conflict because there is no appetite for that sort of fight. I do not believe that NATO attacks if they happen on military targets are going to do anything to increase the strength of Milosevic and will perhaps persuade the population that this man has yet again got them engaged in a murderous conflict from which they can only lose.

  397.  Has he called up his home guard?
  (Mr Robertson)  He is trying to call up people at the moment. He has called a state of emergency and he is calling them up but even the public information that is available shows how difficult he is finding it to do that. If people are actually refusing to be called up, if conscripts are unwilling to turn up that in itself is the tip of an iceberg of collapsing morale that is in there. There is a risk, of course, that it will consolidate Milosevic. That is not something we discount and say pooh-pooh to, but this is a country in the centre of the Europe, a relatively sophisticated country and I do not believe that the people of Serbia want to be dragged down this track of national suicide again and to be pilloried by the whole world community for the destruction of villages, the destruction of human beings, the perpetration of atrocities. There are indications that people among the civilian population in Serbia will blame Milosevic for it and certainly will not support him.

Mr McWilliam

  398.  Secretary of State, do you believe that Milosevic really does think that the slaughter of Serbs in Kosovo in the fourteenth century is an excuse for slaughtering Kosovans at the end of the twentieth?
  (Mr Robertson)  I do not think that is the reason he is doing but it is a method of orchestrating support. Sadly, Serbia is not the only part of the world where history is brought out as a convenient means of masking homicidal tendencies on behalf of today's generation. What we have tried do in Bosnia, what we are again trying to do in Kosovo is to draw a line to tell those who would use violence in order to achieve historical missions or day-to-day land aggression that they cannot get away with it and the international community will simply take a stand. We were successful beyond many people's forecasts in Bosnia and a civil society is reappearing there and I think growing with every day. In Kosovo we are again drawing the line if Milosevic wants to choose the path of peace and a future of security for his own people inside the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but if he is hell bent on war then we must respond because the consequences are too horrifying to contemplate.


  399.  Thank you very much for coming. It has been a rather depressing overall experience despite your well-received presence, Secretary of State, and whatever the degrees of support to Government policy—and I think there is a very substantial majority that do support Government policy than those that do not—whenever British forces and NATO forces are deployed and their lives are threatened then we can unanimously endorse the view that we wish them well and we hope they can return to normal duties as quickly as possible. We hope that we will be able to discuss Bishopton with you so our office will be in touch with yours, Secretary of State, early afternoon. Once again, apologies to the people who came down. We would like to have a brief chat to them afterwards before they leave.
  (Mr Robertson)  I am grateful to you for your indulgence. I think it would have been wholly inappropriate to have crammed it in and anyway the Government wishes its Parliament to be involved as fully as possible and tomorrow's debate will allow that. Mr Brazier on my extreme left took umbrage at something I did not actually say about the role of reserves and the implementation force. I can assure the Committee and him that as the reserves have played a distinguished and essential role in Bosnia I contemplate that when, as I hope, we have an implementation force in Kosovo we will need and will require and will value the reserves there.

Chairman:  I attended a ceremony at Lichfield Cathedral on the last formal occasion of the Third Battalion Staffordshire regiment where they marched through the town. I think you had better act very quickly to save them from complete break up. Even at this late juncture there is still time! Thank you very much.

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