Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Richard for his broad support. Of course this was a terrible mistake; it was entirely an accident. I was able this afternoon to assure the Chinese charge d'affaires quite explicitly on that point, emphasising also the importance that Her Majesty's Government attach to the improving bilateral relationship we have with China. Last year there was the exchange of visits of Prime Ministers and we look forward to the visit of the President of China in October of this year.

My noble friend asked for an explicit undertaking that such mistargeting would not occur again. I can only assure the House that NATO will do its best to ensure that that is the case. I cannot give an explicit assurance. As we have seen, tragic mistakes occur. The Statement makes clear that the event is being investigated, not only in relation to what happened, but also in relation to the procedures leading up to what happened. With the greatest respect to my noble friend, I am sure he feels that such assurances would not be particularly realistic. War is a nasty and terrible business. We can only express our deepest regret when tragedies occur. Everything will be done to ensure that such mistakes do not occur, but we cannot give explicit assurances.

There is no question of the United Nations being a fig leaf. Work is going ahead at the moment to try to secure the Security Council resolution. Our friends in Russia are working with us on this. They were an important part of the agreement reached in Bonn last week. We hope that we will be able to impress upon our friends in China the importance that they should attach to getting a UNSCR through this week.

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, I want to ask about the results of the military action in the context of broad general support for the Government and for NATO action, as I expressed last Thursday in our debate,

10 May 1999 : Column 997

subject only to concern about the blunders that have been made and the consistently-held view on these Benches about the need to deploy ground troops.

I am puzzled about the apparently modest success of our attack on the Serb forces in Kosovo. Can the Minister enlarge on what she said? She said we had destroyed the equivalent of a brigade. Can she say what proportion that is of the total forces we estimate to be in Kosovo? The figures do not have to be exact. Also, will she explain why more destruction of tanks and artillery in Kosovo cannot be achieved, even if it is for the time being through air power rather than with ground troops?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean; My Lords, we cannot have it both ways in this argument. If we were to have unrestrained bombing in Kosovo, much more damage would have been done and your Lordships would rightly be expressing concern about the unintended civilian damage incurred as a result. Last week my noble friend Lord Gilbert explained to your Lordships how the military action got off to something of a slow start because of the weather and because we were inhibited about a bombing campaign which might not have hit the entirely military targets we were looking at to undermine the Milosevic regime.

It is difficult on the one hand to say that we have been able to hit a whole range of targets, and on the other to say that there cannot be any unintended casualties. The Statement is clear in saying that the equivalent of an entire brigade has been destroyed over recent days. That includes tanks, heavy artillery, military convoys and command posts. I am unable to tell the noble Baroness what proportion that represents of the entire military force that the Serbs are deploying in Kosovo. I doubt that that is a figure our military experts would be happy to have broadcast at the moment. If there is anything further we are able to say on that front when I have consulted my noble friend Lord Gilbert and colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, I shall write to the noble Baroness. However, I do not promise a letter because I doubt that we will be able to give much more information at the moment.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that not only is the mistake to which she referred a tragedy, but the whole affair of this bombing is a tragic mistake?

Is my noble friend aware that it was to try to reduce, as far as possible, such mistakes that the Geneva Conventions (Amendment) Act 1995 was drawn up in British law? It specifically prohibits the type of operation which brings about these tragic mistakes. We are not allowed to bomb targets such as television centres, for example. We have to select targets which are exclusively military and which are not near any civilian targets in order not to break the law. NATO has consistently broken the law as laid down in the Geneva Convention, a law which is designed to prevent such tragic mistakes. It is being totally ignored in this operation. You are not allowed to destroy bridges because they are not regarded as being exclusively

10 May 1999 : Column 998

military targets; you are not allowed to attack anything unless it is exclusively military. If there is any doubt the law states that it shall be regarded as civilian and shall be sacrosanct. The law is being completely broken. The Government have not got a leg to stand on, and they should stop immediately.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean : My Lords, I know that my noble friend holds these views passionately and emphatically. I say to him with equal passion and emphasis that the Government do not agree with him, and neither do 19 nations of NATO-- 19 democracies with independent judiciaries.

Every means, short of force, was tried to avert this situation. The noble Lord knows that force is being used as an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity. The military intervention is fully justified. Not only do the 19 countries of NATO think that we are doing the right thing; so do the Kosovar refugees and those poor people who have been treated in an outrageous and brutal way by the Serbian authorities.

What else would the noble Lord have us do? We are obeying the law. We have to look at the tragedy that is being played out on the ground. I remind my noble friend of the three incidents that I described. I shall not repeat them because they are too gruesome and too terrible. But those three incidents took place in only one day last week. We owe it to those people to continue our action.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton: My Lords, last Thursday I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, to assure noble Lords that there was no substance in the suggestion which I read in an article in The Daily Telegraph, and subsequent similar suggestions, that nuclear weapons would be used in Serbia. I would be most grateful if the noble Baroness would answer me today. I have written to her about the subject, but if she answers me now she need not answer my letter.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am tempted to say that you cannot believe everything you read in the Daily Telegraph. I apologise if I did not give the noble Lord the assurance that he sought last week. I give it to him now.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, one of the articles in today's Daily Telegraph, which perhaps we might be allowed to believe, was written by Mr. George Robertson. In the final paragraph he states:

    "Milosevic is trying to find a way out but the only exit strategy NATO will accept is one that gets him and his forces out of Kosovo." I have asked the noble Baroness previously what the future status of Kosovo is likely to be. Will it be autonomous under a Belgrade government and under Milosevic? Or will it have some other status?

In the article Mr. Robertson talks about the KLA rising like a phoenix and coming back all over Kosovo. Are the Government confident that when the Kosovars return to their homes, with the KLA rising like a phoenix, those Kosovars will not seek their own bloody

10 May 1999 : Column 999

revenge on Serbs and other nationals who may still be living in Kosovo? I am sure that this thought will have occurred to Her Majesty's Government, but it would be helpful to have an assurance that the peacekeeping force will ensure that all those in Kosovo are subject to regulation and rules.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am sure that the noble and gallant Lord can believe what my right honourable friend has written in the Daily Telegraph. When he wrote about Milosevic and his forces being turned out of Kosovo, I believe that he was referring to a settlement which will be made on the basis of the Rambouillet accord. Such a settlement will have to be a matter of negotiation. Since the Rambouillet accord was reached, a great deal has happened. Although it is Her Majesty's Government's view that any further settlement should be on that basis, the details will have to be worked out in due course.

We all very much hope that people who have been turned out of their homes, whether they are internally displaced within Kosovo or whether they are refugees beyond the borders of Kosovo, will return in peace to their homes. An international security force will be there to keep the peace in Kosovo generally, having ensured the safe return of those people. They will be there to ensure the safety of all the citizens in Kosovo thereafter.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, can I assure my noble friend that no one in their senses for a moment thinks that there was anything deliberate in the attack on the Chinese Embassy? It was a great mistake and I am sure that the Government genuinely regret it. I do not think for a moment that the Chinese themselves seriously believe that it was a deliberate attack. That is not how the world works, whatever the relations with different states. The Chinese are obviously going to make the most of it, but I am sure that that is not the heart of the matter at all.

In regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, I am sure that the country we have got to watch in all of this is Russia, not China. China does not have the long-term interest in this part of the world that Russia has. Involving Russia in finding a solution is essential if we are to have permanent peace in the Balkans.

I agree with a two-track policy and go along with both, but on the second, diplomatic, tack, is it just simply a matter of Chernomyrdin and Talbott meeting, or is there an initiative? The noble Baroness spoke of diplomatic initiatives. If it is an initiative, not just a formal meeting, can she give any indication as to what such an initiative might involve and what reception it has been given?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page