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Yugoslavia: NATO Bombing and Geneva Conventions

2.59 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, action by our forces is in strict conformity with international humanitarian law, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their additional Protocols of 1977. It is therefore also in strict conformity with the Geneva Conventions Act which implements these treaties.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, the Minister knows that I am among the most devoted in the serried ranks of her admirers. But on this occasion she seems to have stuck too closely to her brief. Is not the whole operation contrary to what is laid down in the convention, and particularly in Articles 51 and 52? If my noble friend will refresh her mind by examining those articles, I think that she will find that we are certainly in breach of them. If she still disagrees, will she tell the House which court can determine whether I am right or whether the Government are right? How can that court be approached, and by whom? Did not Winston Churchill say: "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war"?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope I always stick faithfully to my brief. I know that the noble Lord feels very strongly about this issue. He was kind enough to give me a copy of the protocols to the convention and indicate how the bombing might not be in compliance. I have been able to assure the noble Lord that, so far as our actions are concerned, Her Majesty's Government believe that we are in compliance.

Action is presently being taken in the ICJ on some points that have been raised by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I do not believe that any of our actions will be found to be wanting in terms of the Geneva Conventions. However, I suggest that if the noble Lord is worried he should look at some of the information that is presently coming from the ICJ.

The Earl of Drogheda: My Lords, what has the bombing achieved so far? Does the Minister agree that those people whom it was designed to help have suffered far more from the results of it, and that they could be excused for praying that God protect them from their friends?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, yes, I can tell the noble Earl what the bombing has achieved so far. We are pinning down the Serb forces and hence reducing their ability to conduct ethnic cleansing. Of course they continue with the ethnic cleansing, but it is the opinion of Hashim Thaqi, who is

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the political spokesman for the KLA that the current bombing is keeping the Serb forces divided; that it prevents them re-grouping; and that without NATO bombing the situation in Kosovo would be even worse. He says that if the bombing stops now, the situation would simply be back to square one.

We have indeed destroyed a great deal of Milosevic's artillery. We have struck eight brigade command posts; we have destroyed two-thirds of the most modern MiG 29 aircraft, and around 100 aircraft in all; we have struck 432 tanks, artillery pieces, and armoured personal carriers. I have an enormous list, including 50 per cent of the ammunition storage in Kosovo and 60 per cent of the production facilities for Serb ammunition. So in military terms there is no doubt that the bombing is achieving an end. I would also point out to the noble Lord that the fact that Serb forces on the ground have to spend a good deal of their time hiding prevents them from fighting.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords does the Minister accept that there is a deadline by which NATO must reach a conclusion in its process of updating planning for all contingencies if ground troops are to be committed in order to ensure that Kosovar Albanian refugees can return to their homes before winter? In the light of that, will the Minister say what the Foreign Secretary's objectives will be when he travels to the United States this week?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, talking about deadlines at the moment puts us in the position of revealing rather more about our planning and thinking on this issue than is sensible in terms of what we communicate to Mr. Milosevic himself. The very concept of talking about having to decide matters by a certain time is a foolish thing to do in terms of military planning. It may be all very well for us to talk privately to each other, but what I communicate in this House is of course communicated to a much wider audience.

In visiting Washington, my right honourable friend will be talking to his opposite numbers there about planning. He was at the GAC yesterday, when he saw a number of our interlocutors. The G8 political planners will meet again tomorrow to take forward some of the thinking that was done in Bonn. So my right honourable friend will have the opportunity to discuss what happened at the G8 meeting with the Americans. I hope that he will also have the opportunity of putting Her Majesty's Government's thinking on this matter very clearly, not only to interlocutors but also to the American people.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, are the Serbs able to re-equip their forces that we have destroyed and damaged? If so, from where are they equipping them? What diplomatic or other measures are we taking to prevent that?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am unable to say whether there is a trickle of equipment that is possibly getting through to the Serbs. I would point out that we have already destroyed an

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enormous amount of Serb hardware. In addition to the list I have mentioned, we have destroyed major oil refineries; 70 per cent of military oil stocks; and 30 per cent of fuel storage. A good deal of the NATO activity is devoted to ensuring that lines of supply to the Serb forces are cut down. That is why a great deal of the targeting has been on bridges and main roads. In that way it is hoped to cut off any sources of supply that Milosevic might want in order to replace what he has already lost through NATO bombing.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, will my noble friend tell the House which court may be approached to determine the difference in the interpretation of the convention that has arisen; who may approach it; and how?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hoped that I had indicated to the noble Lord that the appropriate way, if such a case were to be pursued, would be through the International Court of Justice. Indeed the FRY is presently pursuing a case at the International Court of Justice against NATO states.

I know that the noble Lord feels passionately about this matter. However, he must also ask himself about the appalling actions against humanity that have been taken by Milosevic's forces. He seems to want to concentrate only on the things that might have gone wrong in terms of NATO bombing. I have in front of me an appalling and sickening document. It is a chronology of the atrocities committed in Kosovo by Serbian forces. It is almost unbearable to read. I shall see whether I am able to release it to the noble Lord. I hope that he will study it as carefully as I have studied the protocol that he sent me.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords--

Noble Lords: Order! Sit down.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, 30 minutes has elapsed. That is the time set aside for oral Questions.


3.8 p.m.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, I wonder whether this is a convenient moment for me to ask the Government whether they can enlighten the House on how they see future progress on the House of Lords Bill. It is a unique Bill in that the major part of it is the result of a formal agreement between three parties: the Government, the Opposition and three Members of these Benches, not representing Members on these Benches--my noble friend, Lord Weatherill, my noble friend Lord Carnarvon and myself.

In return for the Weatherill amendment, it was formally agreed that the Bill would enjoy a normal progress through the House. Many of us believe that that side of the bargain is at least possibly at risk. Certainly after last night's performance the House as a whole is entitled to know whether the Government at this stage are confident

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that the Bill will progress normally, or whether other steps should be taken to ensure and preserve stage one in order that we may sensibly proceed to stage two.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, last night those of your Lordships who wanted to get on with working on the House of Lords Bill were prevented by busloads of hereditaries, who at a quarter-past 11 made a majority to close down the Committee. That was high-order profligacy with parliamentary time. By that behaviour they are at risk of testing the patience of the country and the Government to destruction.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware that he does not do himself or his office great credit when he speaks in those terms? He says that "busloads" of Peers were brought in. That is not so. There were nine votes more from this side of the Committee than there were on the other side. The only trouble is that the other side did not bus in 10 more people than it did. It does no credit to the office that the noble and learned Lord holds when he speaks in those terms.

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