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11 Mar 2003 : Column 244—continued

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I had not intended to contribute to the debate, but having listened to some of the remarks and realised that there was an opportunity, I want to make a couple of comments and take up a few minutes of the House's time. It is always good to follow my colleague, the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), whose constituency neighbours mine, and it was interesting to hear some of his remarks.

Clearly, any war against terrorism has many different sides and many rights and wrongs. One of the important things that has come out in the debate is that no one, on whichever side, has a monopoly of wisdom or morality, as the Foreign Secretary said yesterday. We all agree about the need in the modern world to combat terrorism. We sometimes disagree about how to do that, but we all accept that it is far preferable for any Government to take action through the UN. Wherever we end up with the Iraqi crisis, I hope that the Government will take the opportunity, when things calm down, to review the way in which the UN has operated so as to find out whether any lessons can be learned.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) highlighted one of the issues that we all face: UN resolutions need to be applied equally irrespective of the country to which they relate. He made a powerful speech in relation to Israel and Palestine. When people talk to me about the current crisis with Iraq, even people who believe that the Government are pursuing the right course and that there is a very real threat from Iraq, they ask why the international community—whether the US, our Government or the UN—does not bring the same determination, desire and passion to bear on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict as it is currently bringing to bear in relation to Iraq.

If people believed that there was a uniformity of desire to resolve such issues wherever they arose, the Government would not face some of the problems that they have in relation to Iraq. People believe that we are not demonstrating the same passion towards Israel and Palestine as we are towards Iraq, and it is important to deal with those problems even-handedly.

The reason I wanted to contribute particularly to this debate—having made those few comments and given guarded support to the Government so far, and hoping very much, as are many of my colleagues, for a second resolution—is that we must also discuss and think about the humanitarian consequences of any war with Iraq. I have just been to a meeting organised by Save the Children, Christian Aid and other non-governmental organisations, and deep concern exists about the planning for the humanitarian consequences of any conflict. Clearly, it is difficult, as, if one starts to plan for a war, a presumption exists that war will take place. I can understand the dilemma felt by people in that situation. We must consider those humanitarian consequences, however, and start to think about answers to the problems that will inevitably arise.

We know that millions of people may be displaced as they flee from war. Where will those people go? Will they be able to get into Turkey? Will there be safe havens in the northern part of Iraq and in the Kurdish area in northern Iraq? How will people travel the hundreds of miles across that part of Iraq that leads to Jordan? Will people have access there? What about the southern part of Iraq and people fleeing into Kuwait? What planning have the Government made with respect to that?

If we are to have a war against terrorism, and it is against the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Government, the United Nations and others who will be involved need to plan for those consequences. That will demonstrate clearly in a practical way that the war is against the regime and what it stands for, and not against the ordinary Iraqi people. What discussions have the Government had with the armed forces of this country and the United States about the preservation of vital infrastructure in Iraq, so that food aid or any other aid to that country can get to the people who need it? What planning have we made to get aid, whether food or medical resources, to the people of Iraq should conflict emerge?

These are all questions on which Parliament has not had much debate. As much as people come to me to debate the rights and wrongs of whether we should go to war, many people also raise issues with me about the

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humanitarian consequences of a war. Will my hon. Friend the Minister also say what kind of regime we would expect to see in Iraq following a war? What would be the involvement of the United Nations in that?

In relation to the war against terrorism, the Chancellor has announced increases in the military budget: the latest, a couple of weeks ago, was an extra £750 million, taking to £1.75 billion the amount of money that the Government have set aside for military operations in Iraq. What increases in aid budgets have there been to tackle some of the humanitarian issues that I have raised? Are those increases in absolute amounts or diversions from one aid budget in one part of the Government's programme to the possible humanitarian consequences in Iraq? I know from the meeting to which I referred earlier what is happening to Palestinians in the occupied territories. One of the worries is that some of the money and aid programmes to that area will be diverted to Iraq.

While we talk about the rights and wrongs of a war against terrorism, and about the military side of any campaign, it is important, if we are to demonstrate that what we are doing is against the regime in Iraq and not against the people, that we plan for the humanitarian consequences of any conflict, and that we do what we can to protect the ordinary people of Iraq.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East referred to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to Iran. It is important to understand the consequences for the rest of the region, and we need clear policies on that.

When we consider the foreign policy aspects of a war on terrorism, we must realise that poverty, inequality, social dislocation and a sense of alienation exist in some parts of the world. To combat terrorism we must, as a world order, do what we can through the United Nations to examine what we can do to alleviate the problems that provide the breeding ground for terrorists. To say that does not excuse terrorism or suggest that terrorism is the answer. However, we must try to resolve the difficulties that exist.

Let us prosecute the war against terrorism through the United Nations as far as we possibly can, but let us not forget that, alongside the military preparation and planning, we need the same desire and enthusiasm to consider what we can do about the humanitarian consequences of any action. In that way, we will demonstrate that the enemy are the evil regimes that are found in many parts of the world, not the ordinary people who live in those countries.

6.1 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). I hope that I will be even briefer, but I doubt that I will achieve the clarity of his speech. Like him, I did not intend to speak in the debate, but spotted the opportunity that resulted from one of the few benefits of modernisation.

I wish to speak because my views on terrorism and how to deal with Iraq have changed in recent weeks. I started to receive considerable numbers of letters in the late summer, and the process has continued since them. Up to a few weeks ago, people would receive a fairly dusty response from me. I would say that I was far from persuaded that the war aims were clear, that there

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certainly was not an exit strategy that I could discern and that I was not persuaded that there was an imminent threat to the United Kingdom or its vital interests that would warrant military action.

I have changed my mind to a considerable extent, and I shall explain my reasons. The middle east has become almost the crucible of the world. For so long, it has been the focus of the three great monotheistic religions, but it is now the location, if not the cause, of most of the terrorism in the rest of the world, and particularly that which scars the middle east itself. For the war on terrorism to be prosecuted successfully and for there to be peace in the world, there must be progress and peace in the middle east. For there to be peace in the middle east, Israel will have to make substantial concessions. We have heard talk in the debate of the need for a Palestinian state with all that that would imply. However, I do not believe that that degree of concession—more than even Prime Minister Barak was prepared to make before the second intifada began—will be possible while regimes, such as that in Iraq, remain dedicated to the complete destruction of Israel and have the will and the intention to acquire arsenals such as we have heard described and such as those for which the weapons inspectors are searching. So regime change is, in addition to disarmament, a perfectly legitimate objective of our policy to secure progress in the middle east.

We must consider to what extent military action is a legitimate tool in securing regime change in Iraq and other terrorist states because there are many ways to skin a cat. People often say that military action must be the last resort. I am not sure that I share that view. I understand why we might say that military action should be a last resort in practical terms because we have to weigh up the practicalities and make a decision that takes into account, for example, the humanitarian consequences, to which the hon. Member for Gedling referred. In those circumstances, we would have to weigh up the probabilities and the costs of military action against the benefits.

In practical terms it would be legitimate to decide that military action is a last resort, but I do not understand why we would say in principle that it should be the last resort. There could be a humanitarian argument for precipitate military action. If we have made a proper estimate that military action is likely to be swift and believe that it will produce a relatively low level of collateral damage and civilian casualties, it might be preferable to entertain that action rather than putting up with years of a regime while we attempt to change it or disarm it by other means. We simply have to come to a judgment on such decisions. I must confess that while the regime in Iraq continues to export its poison to the rest of the middle east and to fund Hamas and the suicide bombings, the quicker we deal with it, the better it will be.

Who should decide when military action is appropriate? Should it be the United Nations, or should there be unilateral action on the part of Britain and the United States? I am a member of the United Nations Association. I passionately believe that the time will come when the UN has immense authority and will be fit to take such decisions. At that time, it will be proper to challenge anyone who gainsays the United Nations, but that time has not yet come. The authority of the

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United Nations does not stem from it just being a body that represents a number of nations; surely its authority stems from the nature of the regimes of which it is constituted. While it remains a fallible human institution, reflecting the fallible states that make it up—most of which are strangers to democracy—I do not understand why we should attach particular attention to its decisions.

If we say that the United Nations second resolution is an absolute condition of any decision to attack Iraq, we effectively hand over the moral decision that we have made on whether that is right and proper to the processes and the conflict of interests that are the reality of debate and decision making in the United Nations. It stretches credulity to say that its decisions are based on an ideal that we might have of it representing the people of the world. I do not believe that a United Nations resolution is a necessary condition. It is for us to decide what we believe to be right and, having made that decision, to pursue it with all the consequences that that will entail having made a proper estimate at the outset.

Hon. Members may recall that some years ago the state of Israel unilaterally attacked and destroyed Iraq's nuclear programme by taking out its nuclear reactors that were allegedly for civilian power generation. There was an absolute furore at the UN and enormous criticism of the state of Israel. The world is now rightfully thankful to Israel for having had the courage to take that action and to challenge the received opinion at the UN, and the world may in future be thankful to us for reaching similar conclusions in our deliberations over the next few days and weeks.

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