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Fishery Limits (United Kingdom) Amendment

Mr. Austin Mitchell accordingly presented a Bill to provide that the Fishery Limits Act 1976 shall have effect regardless of the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972; that Part II of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 shall have effect as though it had not been repealed by the Merchant Shipping (Registration etc) Act 1993; to confer upon the Secretary of State powers to license fishing vessels to fish within United Kingdom waters; to exclude vessels of specified nations or specified vessels from fishing United Kingdom waters; to negotiate common policies with other countries to preserve fish stocks; to invalidate any provisions of the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Community; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 July, and to be printed [Bill 117].

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Opposition Day

[7th Allotted Day]


Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.48 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I beg to move,

I begin by expressing a warm welcome to the Foreign Secretary. I think that it is the first time that we have seen him at a Liberal Democrat Opposition day. We hope that it will be the first of many such happy occasions.

The Prime Minister has rightly said that there is no more solemn decision for him than to commit British forces to military action. The decision of 18 March this year in relation to Iraq was, possibly uniquely, shared with the House of Commons. It was no less solemn by being shared in that way.

It was a decision that was taken against the background of unparalleled public anxiety, which brought more than 1 million people on to the streets of London. We know that a swift and professional victory has been won, and that United Kingdom forces played a distinguished role in it, although one cannot help observing that it would have been surprising if the most powerful military nation in the world—in coalition with others, including the United Kingdom—had been unable to defeat what had become virtually a third-world army, with ageing equipment, poor morale and inadequate leadership.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): In view of the wording of the Liberal Democrat motion before us, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us exactly when the Prime Minister said that there was an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Campbell: I shall come to that point in due course, if I may.

I know of no current principle of international law that legitimates military action because it is successful or produces a benevolent outcome. The Government repeatedly expressed their determination—one would have expected no less—to act in accordance with international law. It is no secret that there was a dispute—some would say a continuing dispute—as to whether military action in this particular case was legitimate.

Since this is a matter of some controversy, it is right that I say what my own view is. Resolutions 678, 687 and 1441 undoubtedly authorised military action, but

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resolutions of the UN Security Council are not the only source of international law. Such military action has to be seen against the principles of international law. It would have been legitimate only if it were truly a last resort, when all other diplomatic and political alternatives had been exhausted, and, indeed, if the action proposed was proportionate, involving no more force than was necessary to achieve the objectives of the resolutions. I did not believe then, and I do not believe now, that those requirements were or have been satisfied. There was still mileage—to put it colloquially—in the inspection regime, and the proposed use of force was by no means proportionate, in that it was designed to bring an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

If members of the United States Administration are to be believed, regime change was always their objective. Not so the United Kingdom Government. At a press conference on 25 March—a week after the House took its historic decision—the Prime Minister said:

Indeed, he said—and implied as much again today—that if Saddam Hussein had disarmed, both Saddam and his regime could have survived.

So it is clear from that analysis and from what we recall, that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were at the very heart of the Government's position, as was the ability to use them within 45 minutes. The Government's case was that the United Kingdom and its forces in particular were at risk from the continued possession of those weapons. If my memory serves me right, Ministers said that, for example, British forces in Cyprus would be at risk if Scud missiles with a suitable range were armed with chemical or biological warheads.

The Government also advanced the case—sometimes, not always—of anticipatory self-defence under article 51 of the UN charter. That could be supported only by a belief that the threat was imminent, to the extent that an anticipatory right of self-defence arose.

Mike Gapes: I am interested in the exact wording that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is using. Is he saying that the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government, said that there was an imminent threat, or that his interpretation of what was said is that there was an imminent threat?

Mr. Campbell: I am saying that it was a clear part of the case made by the Government that there was an imminent threat that weapons could be launched at 45 minutes' notice, and that British forces in Cyprus, for example, were at risk from such weapons. If that does not amount to an assertion that the use of such weapons was imminent, I cannot imagine what it would take to satisfy the hon. Gentleman in that regard.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw) rose—

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) rose—

Mr. Campbell: I give way to the right hon. Lady.

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Clare Short: The question of the imminent threat is very important. It is now clear that President Chirac had said that if the weapons inspectors failed to disarm Iraq, it would be necessary for the Security Council to approve military action. The only reason not to go through the UN, via the capacity of the Security Council, to secure agreement must have been that the matter was urgent and that there was an imminent threat; otherwise, we could have had unity in the international community and the Security Council.

Mr. Campbell: Indeed. As I recall, when this point was made on the last occasion on which Dr. Blix appeared before the Security Council, he said that it would not be a matter of years or a matter of weeks before he and his team could complete their inspections, but that it could be a matter of months. That view was rejected, and as the right hon. Lady says, that can only have been on the understanding that the threat was so acute that Dr. Blix should not be allowed the time that he thought appropriate to complete the inspections.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Campbell: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

Much turned on the opinion of the learned Attorney-General, who ultimately—and unusually—made it known that he had expressed the view that military action was legal. It is axiomatic that on getting counsel's opinion, one should always be aware of the factual basis on which it was given. It is a reasonable inference that the Attorney-General proceeded on the factual basis then outlined by the Government. We are entitled to consider these questions. If the Attorney-General had known then that the immediate nature of the threat depended on the uncorroborated testimony of one witness, it is arguable that he might have changed his opinion. If he had known that Mr. Rumsfeld was likely to say that the weapons might have been destroyed before the war, it is arguable that he might have changed his opinion. If he had known that Mr. Wolfowitz would imply that weapons of mass destruction were not important in the decision to take military action, it is arguable that he would have changed his opinion. If he had known all three of those things, it is indisputable that he would have changed his opinion.

When the case for continuing with the policy of containment and deterrence was being made, the Government's response was that it had failed. The imminence and acuteness of the threat was the Government's answer to the continuation of that policy.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not also think that this adds up to the totally unsatisfactory position whereby an Attorney-General is in the other place and not in the House of Commons? Some of us—the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have been among them—would have put these very direct questions to him. There are certainly two possibilities, if not more, in terms of distinguished lawyers on the Labour Benches who could have been appointed Attorney-General.

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