Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC S: [Gulf Crisis]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [177/734-43]
Editorial comments:


Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 5089
Themes: Voluntary sector & charity, Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (International organizations), European Union (general), Transport, Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Parliament, Conservative Party (history), Defence (Gulf War, 1990-91)
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The Gulf

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Renton]. 2.37 pm

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

May I first express our deep sorrow at the loss of a greatly loved colleague, Ian Gow, and our sympathy to his family; and also express our sadness at the loss of the two other hon. Members to whom Mr. Speaker referred, Mr. Adams and Mr. Wall, who were taken from us so suddenly, and extend our sympathy to their families, too.

The Government have asked for Parliament to be recalled to discuss the grave developments in the Gulf over the last few weeks.

In the early hours of 2 August, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, a peaceful, independent country and a member of the United Nations since 1963. It was a flagrant and blatant case of aggression.

The United Nations Security Council responded promptly, demanding first Iraq's immediate and unconditional withdrawal, and subsequently restoration of the legitimate Government of Kuwait. When after a few days Iraq had failed to respond, the Security Council imposed comprehensive sanctions and later authorised the use of force to implement them.

Meanwhile, in response to requests from King Fahd of Saudia Arabia and other Gulf rulers, the United States, closely followed by Britain, immediately deployed ground, air and naval forces to deter further aggression by Saddam Hussein, and in support of the Security Council's decisions. More than 20 other countries, including several Arab nations, have now sent or committed themselves to sending forces.

British and other foreign citizens in Iraq and Kuwait have been caught up in the crisis, and are being used by Iraq as hostages in a way which has caused revulsion throughout the world. Embassies in Kuwait have been forcibly prevented from carrying out their duty of looking after their citizens.

The Government have responded to this extremely serious situation vigorously and in close co-operation with our allies and friends. Our resolute response has received wide support in this country and elsewhere and the gratitude and appreciation of many Arab Governments.

Hon. Members naturally wished to debate these matters at a convenient moment, and I welcome the opportunity to give the House a fuller account of events and of the Government's actions. Both my right hon. Friends Douglas Hurdthe Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Tom KingDefence have just returned from visiting the area and are in a position to give first-hand reports to the House.

I shall first say a word about the origins of the present crisis. In July, Iraq and Kuwait became involved in a dispute over oil pricing and production levels, and over Iraqi debts to Kuwait. Iraq's principal demand was that Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates should cut oil production in order to maintain prices. Iraq also demanded it should not have to repay the loans of many billions of dollars received from Kuwait during the Iran-Iraq war. As the dispute developed, Iraq deployed substantial numbers of troops to positions near the border with Kuwait. [column 735]

Active diplomatic efforts, notably by President Mubarak of Egypt, were made to defuse the situation. As a result, Iraq and Kuwait agreed to bilateral talks in Jedda on 1 August, with the prospect of a further round of discussions in Baghdad. The Iraqi Government gave explicit and categorical assurances to the Governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia that they had no intention of invading Kuwait.

Saddam Hussein introduced into this dispute the further question of Iraqi territorial claims on Kuwait. These claims are without legal foundation. The Al-Sabah family has ruled Kuwait since the 18th century, long before Iraq itself was created in the break-up of the Ottoman empire following the first world war.

Kuwait's borders with the newly created Iraq were drawn in 1923. They were accepted by Iraq when it became an independent state in 1932. None the less, Iraq resuscitated its territorial claim against Kuwait in 1961, when British protection of Kuwait came to an end. British forces were despatched at the request of the ruler to protect Kuwait's independence and sovereignty. They were subsequently replaced by an Arab League force. The existing border was then finally reaffirmed between Iraq and Kuwait in 1963.

That is the history. To return to recent events, despite having assured other Arab Governments and leaders that he had no aggressive intent, Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi forces to invade Kuwait in the early hours of 2 August. They did so under the pretext of responding to a request for assistance from a non-existent revolutionary government, which they alleged had overthrown the Government of Kuwait.

Saddam Hussein then established a puppet regime consisting of Iraqi officers. That so-called government have now disappeared without trace, and Saddam Hussein claims to have annexed Kuwait, which he now describes as a province of Iraq. History has many examples of perfidy and deceit. This ranks high among them and shows that nothing Saddam Hussein says can be trusted. Moreover, it is an outrageous breach of international law.

Iraqi's actions raise very important issues of principle as well as of law. There can be no conceivable justification for one country to march in and seize another, simply because it covets its neighbour's wealth and resources. If Iraq's aggression were allowed to succeed, no small state could ever feel safe again. At the very time when at last we can see the prospect of a world governed by the rule of law, a world in which the United Nations and the Security Council can play the role envisaged for them when they were founded, Iraq's actions go back to the law of the jungle.

The issue is one of importance to the whole world. It affects world security, world oil supplies and world economic stability. It affects the confidence of all small states, not only those in the middle east. We have bitter memories of the consequences of failing to challenge annexation of small states in the 1930s. We have learned the lesson that the time to stop the aggressor is at once.

The international response has been swift and resolute and for that we owe much to the United States and to the co-operation of the Soviet Union. [column 736]

On 2 August, the very day of the invasion, the Security Council adopted resolution 660 condemning the invasion and calling for Iraq's immediate and unconditional withdrawal.

On 4 August, the European Community and its member states took measures to protect Kuwaiti assets, to freeze Iraqi assets, to embargo oil and to stop arms sales to Iraq. It also agreed to work for comprehensive economic sanctions in the Security Council.

Two days later, as Iraq had failed to comply with the original resolution 660, the Security Council adopted a further resolution—661—which demanded the restoration of the legitimate Government of Kuwait and imposed comprehensive mandatory sanctions on Iraq under chapter VII. A committee of the Security Council was also set up to monitor and report on the implementation of sanctions.

Subsequently, the Security Council has adopted three further resolutions. They declare Iraq's annexation of Kuwait null and void; condemn Iraq's actions against foreign nationals in Kuwait and Iraq. and demand that they be allowed to leave; and resolution 665 calls upon United Nations member states to take necessary measures against shipping to ensure the strict implementation of sanctions. As was pointed out at the time, that includes the use of minimum force.

Not a single country voted against any of those resolutions, although the Yemen and Cuba abstained on some of them.

Let me stress: our objectives are those set out in those resolutions—unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and restoration of the legitimate Kuwaiti Government. The preferred method is comprehensive economic sanctions, collectively and effectively implemented.

Iraq is vulnerable to sanctions. Its economy is based almost totally on the export of a single commodity, oil, through a limited number of identifiable outlets. That is why the action of Turkey and Saudi Arabia in preventing the export of Iraqi oil through the pipelines was of such critical importance. Other outlets are being effectively blockaded, and the embargo on the sale of oil from Iraq and Kuwait is so far working well.

Iraq is also heavily dependent on imports of food and other commodities; and it has limited currency reserves following the war with Iran. That is why it was so important to freeze Kuwait accounts and assets abroad on the very first day, and so prevent Iraq from exploiting them. Rigorous implementation of sanctions by the whole world is vital to make the policy work.

The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey have shown great steadfastness, as have the Gulf Co-operation Council and many members of the Arab League. Saudi Arabia and other members of OPEC have helpfully agreed to increase oil production substantially to compensate for the loss of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil on the world market.

For a number of countries, backing sanctions will bring serious economic hardship. An international initiative to find financial and other ways to help them is already under way. I saw Secretary Brady yesterday to discuss that, and said that Britain would play its part; and while we must all contribute, it is only fitting that a special effort should be made by those who, for one reason or another, are not contributing to the multinational force in the Gulf.

I have been dealing with sanctions and their enforcement. The question has arisen whether further [column 737]authority would need to be obtained from the Security Council for military action beyond that required to enforce sanctions.

We have acted throughout in accordance with international law, and we shall continue to do so. Resolution 661, which called for comprehensive economic sanctions, expressly affirms the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence, in response to the armed attack by Iraq against Kuwait, in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations charter. We hope that economic sanctions will prove to be sufficient. That is why they must be strictly enforced. But we are not precluded by reason of any of the Security Council resolutions from exercising the inherent right of collective self-defence in accordance with the rules of international law.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

This is the nub of the whole debate. As I understand it, what the right hon. Lady has said is that the United Nations charter, and the resolutions that have been passed, have already, here and now, given her legal authority, if it comes to it and it is decided, to take military action against Iraq. I take it that, if we vote in the right hon. Lady's Lobby tomorrow night, she will claim that to be an endorsement of that view. Is that her view? She knows the real anxiety. People think that America may go to war and Britain, which is quite a minor part of the operation, will be dragged into it before the House resumes.

The Prime Minister

The nub of the debate is to secure the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait and the legitimate restoration of the Government of Kuwait. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman will wait a moment, he will hear my view when I have finished this section of my speech.

May I repeat what I have said? We have acted throughout in accordance with international law and we shall continue to do so. I pointed out that resolution 661, which called for comprehensive economic sanctions, expressly affirms the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence in response to the armed attack by Iraq against Kuwait. [Interruption.] This is from the resolution, in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations charter.

We hope that economic sanctions will prove to be sufficient. That is why they must be strictly enforced. But we are not precluded, by reason of any of the Security Council resolutions, from exercising the inherent right of collective self-defence in accordance with the rules of international law.

To undertake now to use no military force without the further authority of the Security Council would be to deprive ourselves of a right in international law expressly affirmed by Security Council resolution 661; it would be to do injustice to the people of Kuwait, who are unable to use effective force themselves; it would be to hand an advantage to Saddam Hussein; and it could put our own forces in greater peril. For these reasons, I am not prepared to limit our legitimate freedom of action.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

If the Prime Minister is so sure about the rightness of her cause, why the reluctance to seek United Nations authority?

The Prime Minister

I have made my position absolutely clear. May I repeat it? To undertake now to use no military force without the further authority of the [column 738]Security Council would be to deprive ourselves of a right in international law expressly affirmed by resolution 661; it would be to do injustice to the people of Kuwait, who are unable to use effective force themselves; it would be to hand an advantage to Saddam Hussein; and it could put our own forces in greater peril.

I have full legal authority for everything that I say on these matters, and for those reasons I am not willing to limit our legitimate freedom of action. I have made the position clear, and there is nothing further that I can add. For the reasons that I have given, I am not prepared to limit our legitimate freedom of action. If right hon. or hon. Members think to the contrary, I am sure that they will have time to put their views. My views have been approved by the topmost legal opinions that we can get.

Our first objective has been to make sanctions effective as a means of bringing pressure on Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Our second but no less urgent objective was to deter further Iraqi aggression. Saddam Hussein could have gone on to invade the north-eastern territories of Saudi Arabia and seize its oilfields. Had he succeeded in that, he could have taken the smaller Gulf states too. It is thanks to rapid action by the United States in sending forces to the area, and prompt support by Britain and France, that the aggressor has been halted.

We have worked throughout in the closest possible co-operation with the United States. I have been in frequent contact with President Bush, and my right hon. Friends Douglas Hurdthe Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Tom Kingthe Secretary of State for Defence have remained in the closest touch with their American colleagues. That pattern has been repeated at every diplomatic and military level. The President of the United States has given a lead that deserves the widest support; and the commitment of American forces has been on a tremendous scale.

The House will be familiar with Britain's response, which of course is on a much smaller scale—and I will summarise it briefly. We have deployed a squadron of Tornado F3 air defence aircraft, a squadron of Tornado ground attack aircraft, and a squadron of Jaguar aircraft for ground support. They are stationed in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman. They are backed up by VC10 tanker aircraft and Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft.

One Royal Navy destroyer and two frigates are in the Gulf. A second destroyer is on its way, as are three mine clearance vessels. There are also a number of support ships in attendance. A limited number of ground forces are deployed to defend airfields and to provide security generally.

That is already a valuable contribution to the defence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but we believe some additional forces will be needed, and their composition is under consideration.

I wish to stress three points about our armed forces. First, they have been deployed in the area at the request of the Governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states—and, in the case of Bahrain, that Government have invoked our treaty of friendship.

Secondly, they arrived quickly—a factor that contributed enormously to their effect, because the greatest need to deter was in the very early days of the crisis. That is a tribute to the efficiency, skill, and dedication of our service men and service women.

Thirdly, our forces are part of a much wider international effort, including not only United States [column 739]forces but those of our European allies, of many Arab countries and others, including members of the Commonwealth. It is a truly multinational force.

The plight of British and other foreign nationals in Iraq and Kuwait has shocked everyone. Every norm of law, of diplomatic convention and of civilised behaviour has been offended by the way in which those citizens have been rounded up, treated as hostages, and used as a human shield. It is strange for someone who claims to be the leader of the Arab world, a latter-day Saladin, to hide behind women and children. Through the United Nations and bilaterally, we have done everything possible to press Iraq to let our people go, just as theirs are free to go from Britain. There has been particularly good co-operation with other European countries on this matter. The International Committee of the Red Cross is seeking but has not yet obtained the right of access to all hostages held in Iraq and Kuwait, which they are entitled to under the Geneva convention.

The recent release of some women and children is very welcome, and more are expected in the next few days. But they should never have been detained in the first place; and their release does not make the detention of their husbands, fathers and sons any less evil and reprehensible.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham-West)

Has the Prime Minister seen the complaint in a letter to The Times today from one of the released hostages, which said that the British presence in Kuwait—the embassy—was not giving sufficient and proper advice to those people who remained? Secondly, it said that there has been no debriefing of those people who have come back from Kuwait. Will the Prime Minister tell us what action is being taken to debrief those who have fortunately been released? Thirdly, will she tell us why the British Airways flight was allowed to land in Kuwait five hours after the invasion had taken place? Why was it not warned and allowed to be diverted?

The Prime Minister

I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's questions in reverse order. The British Airways flight landed, its passengers disembarked, and the crew handed over to a successor crew and went to their hotels. All that took place before the invasion: the invasion was later. I think that there will be a letter setting out the full facts—a legal letter, so I cannot go further into the matter. Some people would most strenuously argue against some of the misinformation which has unfortunately occurred.

Secondly, with hindsight, people expected us to be able to give advice on things that we could not possibly foresee. Our embassy deserves praise. When it was suggested that our people should go to hotels, volunteers immediately went to those hotels to look after them. We did not know what would occur. There was no one there to meet them, so they returned to their homes. It is suggested that people should have been advised to try to escape. I do not know how the hon. Gentleman can think that we could possibly have given such advice. Will he recall that one of our citizens who tried to do that was shot dead? We have not even been able to recover his body.

The third matter that the hon. Gentleman raised was debriefing. These people arrived back at 4.45 in the morning, having suffered terrible experiences. I and all my [column 740]right hon. Friends were concerned that somebody from the Department of Social Security should be at the airport to give immediate help if required, also doctors in case medical attention was needed, and that there should be someone there to get accommodation should that be needed. That was at 4.45 am. Had we attempted to debrief them then, we should have been extremely culpable. It would have been said that we were hard and unthinking. Many of those people have already reported, voluntarily, every single thing that they knew. Of course, we shall do everything that we can to ensure that we obtain as much information as possible because it may be helpful to others.

The hon. Gentleman's criticisms are not well-founded, and I should like to thank our people in Kuwait.

The recent release, as I said, is welcome, but these people should not have been detained. Their release does not make the detention of their husbands, fathers and sons any less evil and reprehensible.

Our ambassador and his staff in Baghdad are doing their utmost to help and protect our people. In Kuwait, we and nearly 30 other countries have refused to comply with Iraq's utterly illegal attempt to close foreign embassies.

Although our embassy is surrounded by armed soldiers, and its water and electricity cut off, our ambassador and his small staff of volunteers continue to offer what help they can to the beleaguered British community. The House—most of it—will join me in paying tribute to their work, and, even more so, to the courage and fortitude of all the British people in both countries who are living through this terrible time. Our thoughts go also to their families. We are all very grateful to the work done by the helpline run by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) and others. It is splendid work, and we thank the many volunteers who have given their time and effort.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

The Prime Minister just mentioned the helpline. We all agree that it has been marvellous and has helped in all our constituencies. Does the Prime Minister agree, however, that the families of the people affected should be able to use “Freefone” , so that obtaining the information that they need does not cause their telephone bills to build up?

The Prime Minister

As well as the helpline—which, I believe, is turning itself into a charity so that we are better able to supply it with money voluntarily—there is a 24-hour emergency unit at the Foreign Office which I believe people can telephone without expense.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)

Not yet.

The Prime Minister

They cannot telephone without expense yet; however, they are telephoning. People are on duty there for 24 hours a day, and are receiving many calls. We are doing everything possible in that regard.

Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)


The Prime Minister

I shall give way to my hon. Friend; I hope that then I can get on with the rest of my speech.

Mr. Hayward

May I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments about the efforts of the helpline and all its helpers? May I also clarify the position in relation to charitable trusts? We are in the process of forming such a [column 741]trust, and, if we have enough money we shall give assistance to those who face financial difficulties as a result of the actions taken in Iraq and Kuwait.

The Prime Minister

I believe that I am right in saying that the Foreign Office is also giving some money to help the helpline in its very valuable work.

We shall do our utmost to obtain the freedom of the hostages, keeping their plight constantly before the world. We shall not give in to threats and blackmail. We have made it known that we shall hold Saddam Hussein and Iraqi officials individually responsible at law under the Geneva conventions—to which Iraq is a party—for any harm that befalls them.

I believe that the House will agree that we cannot be deflected from the determined course of action on which we have embarked, and which alone will ensure that the aggressor is not allowed to benefit from his crime. Indeed, by taking hostages, and by his treatment of them, Saddam Hussein only increases the world's abhorrence and stiffens its determination not to let aggression succeed.

Our resolve, and that of our partners and allies, to bring about Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and the restoration of the legitimate Government is absolute. There can be no compromise solutions which limit or diminish that objective, and attempts to devise them only postpone the moment when Iraq realises that there is no option but to withdraw.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

I would prefer to go on, because I am now biting into other Members' time.

There are also some wider lessons to be drawn from these events. First, I believe that the whole House will welcome the prompt and effective manner in which the United Nations has responded to this crisis. At last we are seeing the United Nations act with the determination and purpose that its founders envisaged. I cannot remember a time when we had the whole world so strongly together against an action as now.

Secondly, I would make particular mention of the part played by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. They have worked together to an unprecedented degree to ensure that United Nations action is effective. I believe that in this we are seeing the first results of post-cold war diplomacy: confrontation has been replaced by a new atmosphere of co-operation. We would never have succeeded in getting this response three or four years ago. We hope that the forthcoming meeting between President Bush and President Gorbachev will further strengthen this new accord.

Thirdly, some of the countries bordering Iraq are facing severe difficulties from the flood of refugees—Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, already numbering hundreds of thousands—all fleeing from Saddam Hussein. Those countries, and the refugees themselves, need help until their passage home can be arranged. I can announce today an immediate contribution of a further £2 million to the relevant international organisations. That brings our refugee relief from this crisis so far to £5.4 million.

Fourthly, we must not lose sight of other fundamental issues in the region, above all the need for a just solution to the Palestinian problem. Unfortunately, the Palestinians' support for Iraq's action in seizing the territory of another state has grievously damaged their [column 742]cause, but nevertheless these events must not stop us from trying to find a solution to this long-standing issue. Peace and security will not come to the region until it is solved.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

I should like to get on and finish my speech now.

Fifthly, we will need to look to the future, the time when Iraq has withdrawn from Kuwait, as it must, and the legitimate Government have been restored. There will then need to be arrangements to ensure Kuwait's security and that of other countries in the region. I believe that this will need to involve the United Nations, and it is not too early to plan for this situation now.

Sixthly, while east-west relations have improved enormously, these events remind us that dangers can arise elsewhere in the world, and we must always have a strong defence and the capability to operate beyond the borders of NATO, for threats to our security can arise there just as much as in Europe.

Seventhly, we must renew our efforts to outlaw not only the use of chemical weapons but their possession, and no effort must be spared to prevent Iraq from obtaining the materials or technology to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

No. I am not far from the end of my speech and I intend to go straight through to the end of it.

The crisis also underlines the importance of continuing international efforts to prevent the spread of ballistic missiles.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

The Prime Minister

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, very specially.

Mr. Heffer

Will the right hon. Lady explain why it was that, when the Kurds were gassed and chemical weapons were used against them—I know that this Government made protests—the United States, for example, ensured that that was not discussed in the Security Council at the time, when there should have been a great movement by the entire world against that terrible thing which Saddam Hussein did?

The Prime Minister

There should, and we were one of the countries. Indeed, I think that we were the country that made the most vigorous protests in every forum where we were. That was quite right. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing out the point that it was we who made the most vigorous protests.

In the coming weeks we must persist in the determination that we have shown hitherto. There will be those who say that the international effort is costing too much and is not worth it. Some people will forget the awfulness of what Saddam Hussein has done. There will be calls for compromise, attempts to fudge the issues and blur the principles, attempts to undermine the virtually unanimous opposition of the world to what Iraq has done. Of course we prefer a peaceful solution, but that must involve Iraq's total and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait and the restoration of the lawful Government. [column 743]

Let us not forget that in Saddam Hussein we are dealing with a person who, without warning, has gone into the territory of another state with tanks, guns and aircraft, has fought and taken that state against international law and against the will of its people. A person who will take such action against one state will take it against another if he is not stopped and his invasion reversed.

We are dealing with a person who has rejected the efforts of Perez de Cuellarthe Secretary-General of the United Nations to achieve a peaceful solution on the basis of the United Nations' resolutions.

We are dealing with a person who plunged his country into eight years of war against Iran, costing the lives of countless thousands of Iraq's young men—and many hundreds of thousands more casualties—without achieving anything other than destruction and desolation.

We are dealing with a man who has used chemical weapons even against his own people. Such a man must be stopped; and we shall persevere until he is.