Douglas Hurd – 1990 Speech on the Gulf War

Below is the text of the statement made by the then Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, on the Gulf War on 11th December 1990.

Mr. Hurd : It is right that the House should debate the Gulf crisis from time to time and that it should require the Government to keep it fully informed, and I have tried to respond to Opposition suggestions on the timing of statements as the situation has developed.

Today is an occasion to step back from immediate events, to look at the crisis as a whole and to consider what is at stake. One immediate event is wholly welcome, and that is the release of hostages which is now under way. The total British community in Iraq and Kuwait was just over 1,100 at the time of President Saddam Hussein’s last announcement. Aircraft have been chartered from Iraqi Airways to bring our people home and we have taken space on charters organised by others. The community were informed of arrangements by our embassies and announcements over the BBC World Service.

Ninety-three people arrived early yesterday morning, picked up in Frankfurt by the British Airways aircraft that had been waiting in Amman. A further 11 arrived later in the morning by way of Rome. More than 380 arrived at Gatwick yesterday evening by Iraqi Airways and a further 380 are expected this evening. They will be mainly members of the community from Kuwait who were being taken to Baghdad in two planes this morning by Iraqi Airways. Her Majesty’s Government are bearing the full cost of chartering the Iraqi Airways aircraft. British Airways generously contributed the operating costs of its flight yesterday, leaving the Government to pay for fuel and war risk insurance. Other people are making their own way, using scheduled flights via Amman. The Government will meet the costs if travellers do not have recourse to funds and we shall organise further charters if necessary. We are strongly urging everyone to leave.

Our embassy in Baghdad will try to establish the exact whereabouts of all who remain. I believe that reception arrangements here have worked well and that co-operation between Government Departments, voluntary organisations and airport authorities has been good.

In two days from now, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Kuwait will be the last remaining ambassador carrying on his duties in that country. Mr. Weston and his colleague Mr. Banks have been keen to stay at their posts, so long as by doing so they could give somehelp to our community in Kuwait. If, as I hope, that community—or all but a small minority who wish to stay—is able to return—is able to return to Britain by way of Baghdad in the coming days, we shall work out with those two brave men how long they should stay. I thank them again for what they have done.

I will comment on the advice that we are giving to British communities in the Gulf region outside Iraq and Kuwait. We are talking of some 50,000 people, more than the community from any other country. At the beginning of the crisis we encouraged some thinning out, but many people have since, for understandable reasons, gone back. At the end of last month, we recommended that school children should not travel out to Bahrain, Qatar or the eastern province of Saudi Arabia for Christmas and that families should get together for the holiday in this country. We also advised that those dependants leaving the Gulf for Christmas should not return until the situation became clearer. We look carefully and constantly at that advice. It is our duty to give the communities the best possible advice, a responsibility which weighs heavily on us. We do not want to cause alarm, disrupt people’s lives or separate families unnecessarily. But many British people live in countries which, in the event of conflict, would be at direct risk from Iraqi military action. We keep a close eye on the advice and, because of hon. Members’ interest in their constituents, I shall keep the House fully informed of any changes in our advice.

President Saddam Hussein is now complying with one of the three main requirements of the Security Council. Attention can now focus on the other two requirements —the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the restoration of the legitimate Government. Ten days ago I was in New York to join in the last Security Council debate on the subject. It was a notable and dramatic occasion. The council adopted, with just two votes against, resolution 678, which empowers the international community to use “all necessary means” to secure compliance with its earlier resolutions if Iraq does not leave Kuwait on or before 15 January next year.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) rose——

Mr. Hurd : May I just proceed a little further, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman before I leave the subject of the use of force? The phrase “all necessary means” includes the use of force. Resolution 678 is not a call to arms or a timetable for military action. The resolution provides for what it calls a pause of goodwill. That was an idea of the Soviet Government. It gives Saddam Hussein a final opportunity to leave peacefully. We hope he takes it.

We support the United States initiative to make sure that Iraq’s leaders hear the message loudly and clearly. We agree that, in the effort to avoid war, it is worth going that extra mile. I discussed how that might be done with Secretary Baker and the Foreign Ministers of the other permanent members of the Security Council while I was in New York on 29 November, just after the adoption of resolution 678. President Bush and Secretary Baker will not be bargaining. Their purpose is to speak plainly so that Iraq’s leaders understand exactly what is required of them, not by America or Britain, but by the international community, and the consequences if they continue to defy those requirements.

There will be no concessions on the requirements of the Security Council, no partial solution or linkage to other issues. In the European Community last week we decided that the same message would be delivered to the Foreign Minister of Iraq after his visit to Washington by the Presidency of the European Community, probably in Rome.

Mr. Dalyell : Does it bother the Foreign Secretary that one of the two countries that voted against the resolution was one which is nearest and stands to lose most—Yemen —whereas others such as Zaire, where I led the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation, made it quite clear that the crisis is all about lifting the ban on American aid to Zaire on civil rights grounds, not about the merits or demerits of the Gulf? Will the Foreign Secretary look critically at what the United Nations has done?

Mr. Hurd : The two members that voted against were Cuba and Yemen. I am not sure that Cuba is situated very close to the conflict. Yemen, as an Arab country, has been closely involved, but is not one of those countries closest to the conflict. As the hon. Member knows, the Arab countries closest to the conflict—Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—are absolutely clear and solid on the matter. The hon. Member is not on a good argument.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Hurd : I shall continue a little and then give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a minute.

Mr. Benn : I just want to ask the right hon. Gentleman one clear legal question.

Is it the Government’s view that article 51, plus the resolution passed by the Security Council last Thursday, constitute authority for the use of force by the United States, Britain and others without returning to the Security Council or to the House of Commons?

Mr. Hurd : Yes, it is. We believed, and Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen agreed, that article 51 and the original request from the Kuwaitis provided a legal basis; the argument was about whether there should be an additional political basis. That has been supplied by resolution 678.

We continue to read in the media that the unity of purpose in the coalition against aggression is disintegrat-ing. We have read such reports more or less continuously ever since the coalition was formed. Sometimes it is the Arabs in the coalition, sometimes it is the French or the Russians, and sometimes it is the Americans, who, according to the reports, are looking for some compromise that falls short of the requirements of the Security Council. Now, after these weeks, the House can judge for itself and see that that is not true. We are all working for a peaceful outcome. None of us is ready to settle for less than the Security Council requires.

As for linkage, it is common ground between most of us that we have long supported the idea of an international conference on the Arab-Israel problem. That support continues. A conference is a technique, not an end in itself. It needs willing participants if it is to get anywhere. The initiative—Jim Baker’s initiative—taken by the United States Government with our support was designed to find a basis on which talks could take place between Israel and the Palestinians, with a view to a conference in due course. That was before the invasion of Kuwait. We believe that the Baker plan was a realistic effort. The invasion of Kuwait set back that search for peace and a settlement between the Arabs and Israel, as did the partial support of the PLO for the invasion. We have no intention, however, of forgetting the injustices and insecurity that persist so long as there is no peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israel problem.

Iraq under President Saddam Hussein has had and could have no useful contribution to make to this search for a peaceful settlement, but once the Iraqis’ aggression against Kuwait has been reversed we can and shall again focus our efforts on the search for a peaceful settlement. I hope that the co-operation in recent months between the different countries of the coalition against the aggression will improve the prospects of success.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : Given the emphasis on the need to find a peaceful settlement, why do the Government and President Bush appear so impatient with sanctions? Surely, even if they take more than a year to work, they are a much more effective, humane and peaceful means of bringing this man down than the sacrifice of even one British service man.

Mr. Hurd : I am just coming to that argument; it is a serious one and it needs to be dealt with.

I come now to the pressures that the international community—not just British and America—is exerting on Iraq. More than four months after the aggression, those pressures are all peaceful. The most important of them are sanctions, mentioned by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), and the build-up of allied forces representing the so-called military option. There are signs in Iraq that sanctions are having an effect. Basic foodstuffs have been rationed since September. But the Iraqi people are used to hardship. They endured eight years of one of the most bloody and futile wars since 1945 —the Iraq-Iran war. It must be questionable whether sanctions, even if applied over a long period, will undermine the resolve of Saddam Hussein to keep his grip on Kuwait.

Meanwhile—the point omitted by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow—day by day Kuwait is being obliterated from the map. We can read what the hostages are saying as they come back and we can read the Amnesty report and listen to the Kuwaitis. There is no secret about what is happening. Whatever can be removed has been taken to Baghdad. Murder, torture and brutality have been commonplace, as the Amnesty report and later evidence shows. With each day that passes, the likelihood that we shall be able to restore Kuwait to its former position decreases. The Iraqi aim is clear. Iraq is out to eradicate Kuwait as an independent nation. We all welcome the return of foreign hostages from Iraq, as we have just done, but we should not forget the thousands of Kuwaitis who are virtually hostages and prisoners in their own city.

President Saddam Hussein’s sophisticated war machine will continue to take advantage of the time allowed to improve its military position. There are now nearly 300,000 Iraqi troops and nearly 2,000 tanks in Kuwait, and work continues every day on improving the defences. Every delay risks increasing the casualties in an eventual conflict. Those are sobering facts which the House needs to take into account in assessing the situation.

Sir Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead) : What will happen to the Iraqi civilians now in Kuwait? Will they be removed? I refer to civilians, not military personnel.

Mr. Hurd : If the Iraqi forces withdrew as the Security Council requires, I imagine that the civilians would be wise to follow them.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) : The Foreign Secretary has said that, because of the enormity of what is taking place in Kuwait, the British Government and other Governments are not inclined to allow sanctions to have a proper chance to work. What is happening in Kuwait is very disturbing, but it will be disastrous for the population of Kuwait if war breaks out there. That is the choice. As the impact of sanctions was always to be on the Iraq Government’s overseas earnings from oil, from which they obtain 95 per cent. of their income, it is surely reasonable to allow the sanctions a proper chance to work. That will certainly not happen as a result of the months in which they have so far been applied.

Mr. Hurd : It depends what the hon. Gentleman regards as a proper chance. By 15 January the sanctions will have been in operation for five and a half months and an assessment has to be made. I have tried to give the House the means by which that assessment will be made. Members will have their own sources of information. People may say that sanctions are producing decisive shortages which may lead to Saddam Hussein changing his mind. That would produce a new situation, but, as I have said, in our our view that is not so.

In August Her Majesty’s Government committed their forces to the Gulf region for a number of reasons. The first was to defend Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. The second was to deter Saddam Hussein from pursuing his military adventure further. Many other countries, including some of our closest friends and allies, have committed their forces with the same intentions. Those two objectives of defence and deterrence have already been achieved without any military action.

The third reason for sending our troops to the region was to back the United Nations demand—not that of Britain or America—that Saddam Hussein should withdraw from Kuwait. By the middle of January, Britain will have more than 30,000 troops in the area and they will stand beside more than 500,000 others, most of them from the United States and Saudi Arabia itself. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will speak further about that deployment in his winding-up speech. I am satisfied that this accumulation of allied force provides the strongest single hope for a peaceful outcome. Nevertheless—there is no point in having debates such as this if one does not speak plainly—this country faces a risk of war and in that situation every hon. Member is entitled to know on behalf of his or her constituents why that risk is justified. In the age of the sound-bite and the one-minute television interview, this task of communication becomes difficult. Secondary matters crowd in and confuse the issue and immediate questions are put and answered. That is why the House and our debates are so important.

It is not a question of who should rule Iraq—that is not a matter for us. It is not a matter of the price of oil or access to oil. If that were the issue, everyone would have settled with Saddam Hussein long ago. It is not a matter of an American—let alone a British—desire to impose some permanent presence in the Gulf. As the House knows, we are there because friendly states out of their alarm and anxiety asked us to return. The real issue is a different one and we must keep it clear.

It has taken the world a long time to create even the beginnings of a system of collective security. In the 19th century, war was commonplace. The nation states of Europe blundered through treaties of alliance and treaties of reassurance into the great war of 1914. After that war, the international community experimented, but half-heartedly, with collective security. But the League of Nations was inadequate at its birth and it failed to act successfully even within its terms of reference.

Haile Selassie came to Geneva, to the League of Nations Assembly, to plead his country’s cause. The League did not—could not—listen. We did not listen. The Hoare-Laval pact would have placated the aggressor, Mussolini, by giving him part of the country that he had attacked. Are there not echoes there for the House to catch? is it for a repetition of the Hoare-Laval pact that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is seeking and arguing? Abysinnia was snuffed out. The axis powers saw only weakness —

Mr. Benn : As the right hon. Gentleman has referred to me, will he give way?

Mr. Hurd : May I just conclude the point?

[HON. MEMBERS: “Give way.”]

I will, of course, give way.

Mr. Benn : The first speech that I heard in the House was in 1937 when Winston Churchill denounced the Tory Prime Minister for his support for the fascists. The appeasement of the pre-war years was Conservative support for Hitler and Mussolini. There was no appeasement—there was active support for fascism. It does not fall to the right hon. Gentleman, who did nothing about Panama, Grenada, the invasion of the Lebanon or the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey, to accuse those who believe that war would be a catastrophe beyond imagining, and that the United Nations should be an agent of peace, of appeasement, and he should withdraw that.

Mr. Hurd : I do not remember, but the right hon. Gentleman might remember—or his father and my father might remember—that when it became known that Sir Samuel Hoare, the holder of my office, had put together with the French Foreign Minister, Pierre Laval, an arrangement by which part of Abyssinia would be given to Mussolini, so that the awkwardness of his aggression should be forgotten, the Foreign Secretary was forced to resign and was swept from office.

Mr. Benn : I have made no such suggestion.

Mr. Hurd : I asked whether the right hon. Gentleman remembered. Some of the things that the right hon. Gentleman has suggested come close to that.

Mr. Benn : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am in no way sensitive about my personal position, but when the Foreign Secretary argues, by parallel with the Conservative Foreign Secretary, Sam Hoare, that I have argued that a part of Kuwait should be handed to Iraq, he is misleading the House and the country.

Mr. Speaker : With any luck, the right hon. Gentleman will be called in the debate and he will be able to make his points then.

Mr. Hurd : If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that he agrees with us that Saddam Hussein should withdraw completely and totally from the whole of Kuwait, I will withdraw any reference—

Mr. Benn : Withdraw it now.

Mr. Hurd : I would certainly withdraw any reference to the right hon. Gentleman. But there are certainly people who have argued that Iraq should be allowed to retain at least part of Kuwait—two islands, an oilfield, and so on. If the right hon. Gentleman is not among those, and if he is in favour of total Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, I withdraw my reference to him.

Mr. Benn : As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I spent three hours with Saddam Hussein. I reported back to the right hon. Gentleman and to the American ambassador. The right hon. Gentleman knows very well, because I told him, that I told President Saddam Hussein that Iraq must comply with the United Nations resolutions, and it is in the early-day motion which I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have tabled. The right hon. Gentleman is doing what Tories always do in a crisis—they smear those who challenge them.

Mr. Hurd : I withdraw my reference to the right hon. Gentleman —

Mr. Benn : Withdraw.

Mr. Hurd : I have already done so. But I hope that it will go out as the clear view of the House that President Saddam Hussein should withdraw not from part but from the whole of his aggression against Kuwait. If that is established as the universal view of the House, that is a major step forward.

Mr. Benn : But not to war.

Mr. Hurd : I shall come to that in a minute, though I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not blurring his position again. I hope that it is established that the withdrawal from Kuwait should be total and absolute.

For the 40 years of the cold war, the Security Council worked imperfectly and too often it was ineffective. Things have started to change and we have begun to make the United Nations work. All five permanent Security Council members are meeting frequently, talking openly and acting constructively together. We have the same aims. In fact, we have a better chance of collective security than at any other time this century. But there is a subscription to pay —if one may so put it—for collective security, in terms of collective action when aggression occurs. There can be little respect for those who want the benefits of collective security but are not willing to find that subscription.

Some senior hon. Members have fought in a war, but most of us have not. However, we all have enough imagination and sense of responsibility to know that war must be the last resort. No one should believe—here I agree with points made by Opposition Members—that forcing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait would be a quick or easy operation. No one should suppose that the aftermath of conflict would be painless or straightforward. We respect the belief held by pacifists that in no circumstances is war justified, even though that means that aggression and evil of all kinds may sometimes be allowed to succeed. The rest of us—probably most right hon. and hon. Members—accept that there are circumstances in which peace-loving nations may, and indeed should, use force to prevent and to reverse aggression.

We do not argue that in any blithe or careless manner. We prepare the military option, we seek and we gain authority for the military option because in sober judgment we see the experience of that option—the possibility of that option, the existence of that option—as the last and most powerful peaceful pressure on the aggressor.

The latest Security Council resolution—resolution 678 —is not a bluff. The legal authority to use force has been there for some time and the political authority has now been given by the Security Council. That is the strongest possible expression of collective security.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : My right hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of collective security and to stress the need to prepare to use force if Iraq does not withdraw from Kuwait. Will he and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence make it equally clear that if war comes, it is likely to be protracted and bloody, and will not only engage British forces already in the Gulf but make it necessary to mobilise appropriate reserves, including air reserves? As it is likely to be largely an air war, the air element will decide the outcome of the conflict. The United Kingdom has very poor air reserves, but the United States has utilised 45 per cent. of its air transport to the Gulf from its reserves. Will my right hon. Friend make a similar commitment at this time?

Mr. Hurd : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will deal with that point when he winds up the debate. One cannot predict with any exactness the length of a conflict of this kind. I have just said that no one pretends that it will be quick or easy.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : The Secretary of State for Defence said so only last week.

Mr. Hurd : No, no one has ever pretended that.

Mr. Cohen : The Secretary of State for Defence said that the operation would be short, sharp and quick”.—[Official Report, 4 December 1990; Vol. 182, c. 167.]

Mr. Hurd : The existence of the military option is the strongest possible expression of collective security and the strongest possible incentive for Iraq to reverse its aggression. That military option is gaining formidable strength on the ground and in the air and Britain is adding notably to that strength.

The aim is a peaceful solution. The Iraqis see the array that is now building up against them. They know of the authority that is backing that array, which now comes from so many nations and from the United Nations. Now that it has become clear and is no longer blurred, they have a powerful incentive and reason to comply. Let us keep the message clear and not confuse it with secondary issues. The message is a double one—if the aggressor stays in Kuwait, he will be forced out; if he leaves Kuwait and complies fully with the Security Council resolutions, he will not be attacked.

There is a peace option. It is in Saddam Hussein’s hands. We are working for peace and will go on working for peace, but the doctrine of peace at any price leads not to safety but to danger.

Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) rose——

Mr. Hurd : Our policy is clear, firm and reasonable. In commending it to the House, I hope that it will have the backing of all who believe in the possibilities of collective security and a safer world.