Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 126 - 139)




  126. May I welcome, on behalf of the Committee, our very distinguished group of commentators. Thank you for your helpful memoranda. Because of the numbers of our witnesses, I suspect that we shall have a sort of rolling seminar in public, but there is nothing wrong in that, in helping the Committee. Can I first introduce our witnesses, and I think many of the colleagues have been good friends of the Committee in the past: Mr Jonathan Steele, Dr Jane Sharp, Professor Adam Roberts, Mr Tim Judah and Mr John Sweeney. Can I begin in this way, that the job of the Foreign Affairs Committee is to monitor the FCO; as, indeed, the role of all Select Committees. There is a peculiar problem in terms of a situation like Kosovo, where we are dealing with Alliance politics, NATO policy, and it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the role of the FCO, who were probably somewhat hawkish during the conflict, from the Greeks, the Germans, and so on, which led to the ultimate result. Can you assist the Committee in this way; in your judgement, as commentators on that scene, how easy is it to disentangle, distinguish, the role of our own Government, and the input which may have been a little different in public from private, from that of our Allies within NATO?

  (Ms Sharp) First, a disclaimer. People are always giving me doctorates, and I am just plain Jane Sharp, so I just want to put that on the record. I think this is a particular problem, because there are many in Britain who think there is a special relationship with the United States which puts them in a very special position in NATO and particularly with the United States, which I think is very much overblown and is very much laughed at in Washington. But in a situation like this, where armed conflict is being considered, then I think that British views do carry a lot of weight, because we and the French are the only Allies, apart from the United States, who can really project forces forward. But I do think, in the Kosovo crisis, one of the extraordinary things was that, despite all the differences among the 19, they did consistently vote, on each occasion that they were required to, in favour of the action, which was, in a way, extraordinary.

  127. But is it fair to characterise the British input, say, at the time of Holbrooke's meeting with Milosevic, was it in October, and thereafter, as being very much at the hawkish end of the spectrum?
  (Ms Sharp) To me, the most significant part about that Holbrooke/Milosevic agreement and that period is that, if you remember, that is when the United States Defense Secretary said that he would not even commit American ground troops to a peace-keeping force. And that seems to me when Tony Blair really understood how weak Europe was and how dependent they were on the United States; and although I think they were certainly considering the European Defence Initiative all through the summer, even since the Kosovo crisis started, to me, I think, that was one of the defining moments for the Blair administration. The Cohen statement on "no ground troops", even for a peace-keeping force, made Tony Blair realise that there has to be some supreme European effort on defence capabilities.

  128. St Malo came, what, a couple of months later?
  (Ms Sharp) St Malo was December.

  129. So we are talking about the difference between October and December.
  (Ms Sharp) I think the difference in the European Defence Initiative is the British position; the British had always, and even the Labour Government early in 1997 was still taking the position that the EU, as such, should not have a defence profile. And I think it was Kosovo in general, and particularly the American view on ground troops, which, in my opinion, triggered the Blair Government.

  130. It was the moment of truth for European defence?
  (Ms Sharp) Yes.

  131. Would anyone like to comment: Professor Roberts?
  (Professor Roberts) I agree with everything that Jane Sharp has said, and I would only add that I do not think it is hard to know what UK Government policy was for most of 1998 and early 1999, there being a great number of statements, including statements to the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees that have given pretty good clues. And I do not dissent at all from the characterisation we have had of it, and that you gave us, as being somewhat hawkish on this issue, or, as those who take a hawkish view would say, clear-minded and knowing what they wanted to achieve. But I think that there is a question, which is no doubt one which preoccupies this Committee, about how coherent and well thought out that UK Government policy was, whether, having recognised that there was a likelihood of having to use force, they had recognised some of the concomitant—

  132. Of the logistic problems?
  (Professor Roberts) The logistic problems, and also the problems of expulsions of refugees, and the sheer difficulties of using force. As you know, some of the early statements made by Ministers in the first days of the war indicated considerable optimism about the capacity of military action, for example, to protect the Kosovars; and that, we know, did not come to pass. And, to me, it is extraordinary how it was believed that air action could have a protective function in relation to the Kosovars themselves.

  133. Can you add, on this, Mr Sweeney?
  (Mr Sweeney) Yes. I would say that everything that has been said is fair, but you have got to look at it in the context not of what happened the day before but several years before that; and I feel that, in terms of talking about hawks and doves, and there do seem to be quite a few people, for example, the Jonathan Dimbleby extravaganza the other night on the telly, which was attacking, certainly highlighting, the new and fresh agony of those small number of Serbs who are left inside Kosovo, as if that was the beginning and end of the tragedy. And, for me, my experiences are scarred by the memory of the moment Milosevic sent in the tanks against the Belgrade students, in April 1991. Two people died, one was a policeman who had a heart attack, the second was a student, who was 6'6", and I think they shot over the heads of the crowd and he got it in the neck and died; the student was a Pogues fan. And very shortly afterwards there was an appalling press conference, given by the Milosevic regime, though Milosevic himself was not there; and one looked at a role with tankies, of Stalinists, and I thought, "Oh, my God, these people mean trouble." And that, for me, and others are more experienced in this, but that was, for me, the first whiff of the real hardline Serbian nationalism, which, over the course from the spring of 1991 onwards, destroyed the delicate, and actually very successful, ethnic jigsaw that Tito created in Yugoslavia; and from then on the story is Dubrovnik, the shelling of that port. I remember vividly the shelling of Osiek hospital, in September, when the Serb guns and mortars were trained in on the entrance to the accident and emergency hospital. And then Bosnia, and Sarajevo, and Banja Luka, and all those horrible things. So I do not think that my own judgements are any different from people in the Foreign Office, they will remember those things; and it is that weight of evidence of the force of Serb nationalism. Now I am not, for a moment, excusing the kind of parallel nationalism that is going the other way, what the Croats, under Tudjman did, in places like (Amici ?); that, too, was completely disgusting. And there is a dreadful lack, of the kind of thing that we take for granted. When we have an argument in this country, the various rules of the game are established; in the Balkans, that does not seem to be the case. Nevertheless, certainly Mr Cook and the others and Blair and Clinton were forged in the experience of Bosnia, and, for me, I cannot forget saying, "We must do something about this." Time after time after time, one went to hospitals in places like Sarajevo and saw kids who were crippled; there was one I met, just giving you particular examples, because you cannot lose this emotional hit, there was a 12 year old girl who wanted to be a tennis player, and the doctor said "She will never walk again." And that, for me, was the absolute common experience; and the person holding the ring with the most power was Milosevic.

  134. So, essentially, what you are saying is that we have to put Kosovo, or the last years, in context, of the previous ten years?
  (Mr Sweeney) Very much; and, you can tell from the tone of my voice, I apologise for that, I really get quite angry at the forgetting of Croatia, the forgetting of Slovenia, the forgetting of Bosnia. I went to Yugoslavia when you could drive around, when the ethnic balance was still in place. And you have got to put that in memory, you could go to Yugoslavia, it was a nice place; Milosevic wrecked it, he wrecked it in Kosovo in 1987, when he said, "The Serbs will never be beaten again," and that was the moment when Milosevic, looking ahead, saw 1989 happening, saw that the old communism was doomed, feared what was going to happen to Ceausescu, and he jumped. Never forget that Milosevic used to be a Wall Street banker, was Yugoslavia's man on Wall Street; he is a very sharp, sassy guy. That is why he has charmed so many people, David Owen, all the others.

  135. I would like to bring in Mr Judah and Mr Steele, precisely on this, that I do not want to put Jonathan Dimbleby's contribution wrongly, but there was perhaps an element of, if only we had been nicer to Mr Milosevic that he would have responded more reasonably. In the light of what has been described by Mr Sweeney, do you think it is naïve not to have taken earlier a much stronger posture in relation to Milosevic and the Serbian regime?
  (Mr Judah) Actually, I just want to follow on from what John Sweeney was saying here. I imagine that, if I had been the Foreign Secretary, on the one hand, one is haunted by, there are people saying, "You have got to do something, people are being killed;" on the other hand, you have to remember that, I think the most important single event, of all of these events, was Srebrenica. The idea that thousands of people could be massacred in a couple of days, how did you know that was not going to happen again? Srebrenica was in July of 1995; thousands of people killed in the space of about one or two weeks. Now it is very easy today to say, "Well, you know, there are various massacres, it was only a small number of people, 45 people, died in Racak, well that is not very many people." Yes, but at any time we could have had a new Srebrenica; how was one supposed to know that was not going to happen? And I think that is very important to bear in mind.
  (Mr Steele) I would like to come back, if I may, Chairman, to one of the points you made at the very beginning, which is the differential roles of different members of NATO. I argue in the written memorandum that I think we should have had an operation conducted by a coalition of the willing rather than by NATO. I think it was, in fact, a mistake that this was labelled as a NATO operation. Had it been a coalition of the willing I think it would have made it much easier, obviously, for the Greeks not to take part, perhaps, for the Italians and the Germans and other people who had difficulties not to take part. It would have been very largely an Anglo-French-American operation with other people, and I think it would have been much easier, we would not have had the strains within NATO that emerged, because of the necessity to keep so many people on board; and, in fact, it would not have been very different, militarily, on the ground, but politically and diplomatically it would have been very different. So I think one of the lessons of Kosovo is that we do not necessarily have to leave everything to NATO, it can be done, as we did in the Gulf War, as we did, just after the Kosovo operation, in East Timor, by a coalition of the willing, and obviously people who are willing tend to be more eager and committed and efficient.

Dr Starkey

  136. An awful lot of the criticism of NATO is about the lack of legitimacy of what NATO did; now it seems to me that you can argue that at least NATO was 19 different nations, the very broad sweep of it actually gave it a certain legitimacy. If you narrowed it down to, like, three or four nations who felt incredibly strongly, how could you have any legitimacy to that at all, you could pick up any team of three from anywhere in the world to intervene in any number of different places, and they do not have any legitimacy at all?
  (Mr Steele) I think you would have got more than three, you probably would have got about 15; it was really three countries, particularly Greece and, to a lesser extent, Italy and Germany, that were concerned about it. I do not think we would have been down to three if it had been just a coalition of the willing.

Mr Mackinlay

  137. Yes, but it is this question of legitimacy. I can understand you saying it would have been operationally sleeker, decision-making might have been swifter, firm resolve, but we are on flimsy ground on legitimacy, anyway, I think we are coming back to that later. It seems to me, the 15, even if you included Luxembourg, and whatever, that is not a body, is it? I am truly bewildered how you could think that it would have been. And all the spin-offs, subsequently; we are in big trouble with our relations with Russia, are we not, but this was a fig-leaf, with NATO. I truly am bewildered how you can advance that the 15, or the 13, would have helped; as I say, operationally, I can understand that?
  (Mr Steele) As I said, in the Gulf War it was a coalition of the willing; in the East Timor operation, which was largely Asian, obviously, it was still also a coalition of the willing. So I am quite confident that we would have had at least ten members of NATO, including the main ones that Jane Sharp has mentioned, Britain and France, who would have gone along with it.

Sir David Madel

  138. Can I ask you, Mr Sweeney, this is about Milosevic's sharpness of mind. If I heard you right, you said that by 1987 Milosevic had predicted that if, for instance, there was serious trouble in East Germany, Gorbachev would not seek to resolve it by the use of Soviet military force; and, therefore, there was a huge strategic change in Moscow, that if push came to shove Russia would back down from what it did in 1956 in Hungary?
  (Mr Sweeney) I am not saying that he foresaw all those events as precisely, but he saw, and you could feel it in Eastern Europe, at that time, that the power was seeping away and that the idea of running as a communist in the future was doomed, and he switched from communism to nationalism; so he deserted Yugoslav communism for the tiger of Serbian nationalism, and that meant he had to start murdering people. Because you cannot have a nationalist Serbia in the context of the delicate, very intricate Yugoslav ethnic compromise, because Yugoslavia was a nation of minorities and the Serbs were the biggest minority, but once you said, "Right, we're going for Serb nationalisation," and, remember, he robbed the Yugoslav treasury and took all the money in the Yugoslav treasury and put it into the Serbian treasury, he sacked all the non-compliant, non-Serb generals and admirals. There used to be a Croat and a Slovene and never any Kosovar generals, but all of this was a delicate thing, and they used to have a rotating presidency; all of that went, Milosevic destroyed it. He sacked, and this is something you should remember very well, and one of our colleagues, Marcus Tanner, wrote a brilliant letter about it in The Spectator the other day, he sacked all the doctors, all the policemen, who were Albanian, in Kosovo, and replaced them with Serbs, in 1990. So what you have, in terms of the West's response to Milosevic in Kosovo, is his previous prior history of sustained Serbian nationalisation and brutal, brutal, police tactics. I met a fine Albanian policeman, who was fine in 1990; electric shock torture, all of that. If you look at the previous reports from Amnesty International, there is loads and loads and loads of it.

  139. So if he sees we are firm in containment he will not risk a challenge; as long as he understands that we are firm with a policy of containment, he will accept that?
  (Mr Sweeney) And what he got was weakness; until, in fact, the Labour Government got in. I do not want to sound creepish. But, essentially, I remember asking the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, when he arrived in Zagreb, what was he going to do about Srebrenica, and he gave no answer. What you got under the Major years was, "We don't think intervening in a serious way in the former Yugoslavia is worth the risk to British lives, and it is not in our national interest." And so Milosevic knew that, calculated that, and walked away with it. So if you ask me were we hawkish in what we did in Kosovo, well, no; we were clear-minded, we were forthright, and the problem was that, historically, we had been weak and feeble.

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