Margaret Thatcher – 1986 Statement on Libya

Below is the text of the statement made by Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 16 April 1986.

My statement yesterday explained the Government’s decision to support the United States military action, taken in self-defence, against terrorist targets in Libya.

Of course, when we took our decison we were aware of the wider issues and of people’s fears. Terrorism attacks free societies and plays on those fears. If those tactics succeed, terrorism saps the will of free peoples to resist.

We have heard some of those arguments in this country: “Don’t associate ourselves with the United States,” some say; “Don’t support them in fighting back; we may expose ourselves to more attacks,” say others.

Terrorism has to be defeated; it cannot be tolerated or side-stepped. When other ways and other methods have failed—I am the first to wish that they had succeeded—it is right that the terrorist should know that firm steps will be taken to deter him from attacking either other peoples or his own people who have taken refuge in countries that are free.

Before dealing with that central issue, and the evidence that we have of Libyan involvement, I wish to report to the House on the present position, as far as we know it. There have been reports of gunfire in Tripoli this lunchtime, but we have no further firm information.

The United States’ action was conducted against five specific targets directly connected with terrorism. It will, of course, he for the United States Government to publish their assessment of the results. However, we now know that there were a number of civilian casualties, some of them children. It is reported that they included members of Colonel Gaddafi’s own family.

The casualties are, of course, a matter of great sorrow. We also remember with sadness all those men, women and children who have lost their lives as a result of terrorist acts over the years—so many of them performed at the Libyan Government’s behest.

We have no reports of British casualties as a result of the American action or of any subsequent incidents involving British citizens in Libya. I understand that telephone lines to Libya are open and that people in the United Kingdom have been able to contact their relatives there.

As I told the House yesterday, since May 1984 we have had to advise British citizens choosing to live and work in Libya that they do so on their own responsibility and at their own risk. Our consul in the British interests section ​ of the Italian embassy has been and will remain in close touch with representatives of the British community to advise them on the best course of action.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

The right hon. Lady referred to the killing of innocent children and then to terrorist attacks on innocent people in various parts of the world. I think that she and I may have been brought up in the same Christian tradition. Does she remember that two wrongs do not make a right?

The Prime Minister

Had the hon. Gentleman been listening, he would have realised that I was trying to tackle that argument in part, when I said that terrorism thrives on a free society. The terrorist uses the feelings in a free society to sap the will of civilisation to resist. If the terrorist succeeds, he has won and the whole of free society has lost.

We are most grateful for the work of the Italian authorities, as our protecting power, on behalf of the British community in Libya.

In this country, we have to be alert to the possibility of further terrorist attacks—so, too, do our British communities abroad. Our security precautions have been heightened, but it is, of course, the technique of the terrorist not just to choose obvious targets. Members of the public should therefore be ready to report to the police anything suspicious that attracts their attention. We have also taken steps to defend our interests overseas, seeking from foreign Governments enhanced protection for British embassies and communities.

The United Nations Security Council met twice yesterday and resumes today. With some significant exceptions, first international reactions have been critical, even to this carefully limited use of force in self-defence, but I believe that we can be pretty certain that some of the routine denunciations conceal a rather different view in reality.

Concern has been expressed about the effects of this event on relations between East and West. The United States informed the Soviet Union that it had conclusive evidence of Libyan involvement in terrorist activities, including the Berlin bomb, that limited military action was being taken and that it was in no way directed against the Soviet Union.
We now hear that Mr. Shevardnadze has postponed his meeting with Mr. Shultz planned for next month. I must say that that looks to me rather like a ritual gesture. If the Soviet Union is really interested in arms control it will resume senior ministerial contacts before long.

Right hon. and hon. Members have asked me about the evidence that the Libyan Government are involved in terrorist attacks against the United States and other Western countries. Much of this derives, of course, from secret intelligence. As I explained to the House yesterday, it is necessary to be extremely careful about publishing detailed material of this kind. To do so can jeopardise sources on which we continue to rely for timely and vital information.

I can, however, assure the House that the Government are satisfied from the evidence that Libya bears a wide and heavy responsibility for acts of terrorism. For example, there is evidence showing that, on 25 March, a week before the recent Berlin bombing, instructions were sent from Tripoli to the Libyan people’s bureau in East Berlin to conduct a terrorist attack against the Americans. On 4 ​ April the Libyan people’s bureau alerted Tripoli that the attack would be carried out the following morning. On 5 April the bureau reported to Tripoli that the operation had been carried out successfully. As the House will recall, the bomb which killed two people and injured 230 had exploded in the early hours of that same morning.

This country too is among the many that have suffered from Libyan terrorism. We shall not forget the tragic murder of WPC Fletcher by shots fired from the Libyan people’s bureau in London just two years ago tomorrow. It is also beyond doubt that Libya provides the Provisional IRA with money and weapons. The major find of arms in Sligo and Roscommon in the Irish Republic on 26 January, the largest ever on the island, included rifles and ammunition from Libya.

There is recent evidence of Libyan support for terrorism in a number of other countries. For instance, only three weeks ago intelligence uncovered a plot to attack with a bomb civilians queueing for visas at the American embassy in Paris. It was foiled and many lives must have been saved. France subsequently expelled two members of the Libyan people’s bureau in Paris for their involvement.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

My right hon. Friend mentioned the considerable arms find by the Garda in County Sligo. Does she recall that they also unearthed a very large supply of small arms ammunition in boxes with Libyan army markings?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do recall that piece of evidence.

On 6 April an attempt to attack the United States embassy in Beirut, which we know to have been undertaken on Libyan Government instructions, failed when the rocket exploded on launch.

It is equally clear that Libya was planning yet more attacks. The Americans have evidence that United States citizens are being followed and American embassies watched by Libyan intelligence agents in a number of countries across the world. In Africa alone, there is intelligence of Libyan preparations for attacks on American facilities in no fewer than 10 countries.

There is other specific evidence of Libyan involvement in past acts of terrorism, and in plans for future acts of terrorism, but I cannot give details because that would endanger lives and make it more difficult to apprehend the terrorists. We also have evidence that the Libyans sometimes chose to operate by using other middle east terrorist groups.
But we need not rely on intelligence alone because Colonel Gaddafi openly speaks of his objectives. I shall give just one instance. In a speech at the Wheelus base in Libya in June 1984, he said:

“We are capable of exporting terrorism to the heart of America. We are also capable of physical liquidation and destruction and arson inside America.”

There are many other examples.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I am grateful to the. Prime Minister for giving way. Why is she prepared to support United States aggression against Libya but is not prepared to support United States economic sanctions against Libya?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself in patience, I shall come to that.

Yesterday, many hon. Members referred to the need to give priority to measures other than military, but the sad fact is that neither international condemnation nor peaceful pressure over the years has deterred Libya from promoting and carrying out acts of terrorism.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) rose—

The Prime Minister

No, I must carry on at the moment. I am on a new point about non-military measures about which I have been asked, and I must proceed through this evidence carefully.

In 1981 the United States closed the Libyan people’s bureau in Washington and took measures to limit trade with Libya. Later, in January this year, the United States Government announced a series of economic measures against Libya. They sought the support of other Western countries. We took the view, together with our European partners, that economic sanctions work only if every country applies them. Alas, that was not going to happen with Libya.

In April 1984 we took our own measures. We closed the Libyan people’s bureau in London and broke diplomatic relations with Libya. We imposed a strict visa regime on Libyans coming to this country and we banned new contracts for the supply of defence equipment and we severely limited Export Credits Guarantee Department credit for other trade.

Over the years, there have been many international declarations against terrorism, for example, by the economic summit under British chairmanship in London in June 1984; by the European Council in Dublin in December 1984; and finally by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1985. All those meetings adopted resolutions condemning terrorism and calling for greater international co-operation against it.

Indeed, the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly unequivocally condemns as criminal all acts, methods and practices of terrorism. It calls upon all states, in accordance with international law, to refrain from organising, instigating, assisting or participating in terrorist acts in other States. After the Achille Lauro incident, the Security Council issued a statement condemning terrorism in all its forms everywhere.

But while resolutions and condemnation issued from those cities, in others more terrible events—bombings, hijackings and kidnappings—were happening or were being planned. They are still being planned.

It was against that remorseless background of terrorist atrocities, and against the background of the restrained peaceful response, that the case for military action under the inherent right of self-defence to deter planned Libyan terrorist attacks against American targets was raised.

President Reagan informed me last week that the United States intended to take such action. He sought our support. Under the consultation arrangements which have continued under successive Governments for over 30 years, he also sought our agreement to the use of United States aircraft based in this country. Hon. Members will know that our agreement was necessary.

In the exchanges which followed, I raised a number of questions and concerns. I concentrated on the principle of self-defence, recognised in article 51 of the United Nations charter, and the consequent need to limit the action and to relate the selection of targets clearly to terrorism.

There were of course risks in what was proposed. Many of them have been raised in the House and elsewhere since the action took place. I pondered them deeply with the Ministers most closely concerned, for decisions like this are never easy. We also considered the wider implications, including our relations with other countries, and we had to weigh the importance for this country’s security of our Alliance with the United States and the American role in the defence of Europe.

As I told the House yesterday, I replied to the President that we would support action directed against specific Libyan targets demonstrably involved in the conduct and support of terrorist activities; further, that if the President concluded that it was necessary, we would agree to the deployment of United States aircraft from bases in the United Kingdom for that specific purpose.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir.

The President responded that the operation would be limited to clearly defined targets related to terrorism, and that every effort would be made to minimise collateral damage. He made it clear that, for the reasons I indicated yesterday, he regarded the use of F111 aircraft from bases in the United Kingdom as essential. There are, I understand, no other F111s stationed in Europe. Had we refused permission for the use of those aircraft, the United States operation would still have taken place; but more lives would probably have been lost, both on the ground and in the air.

It has been suggested that, as a result of further Libyan terrorism, the United States might feel constrained to act again. I earnestly hope that such a contingency will not arise. But in my exchanges with the President, I reserved the position of the United Kingdom on any question of further action which might be more general or less clearly directed against terrorism.

Mr. Faulds

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

The Prime Minister

No. This point is particularly important.

Moreover, it is clearly understood between President Reagan and myself that, if there were any question of using United States aircraft based in this country in a further action, that would be the subject of a new approach to the United Kingdom under the joint consultation arrangements.

Many hon. Members have questioned whether the United States action will be effective in stopping terrorism—

Mr. Faulds

Will the right hon. Lady give way on that point?

The Prime Minister

Many hon. Members—

Mr. Faulds rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he must resume his seat if the Prime Minister does not give way.

The Prime Minister

Many hon. Members have questioned whether the United States action will be effective in stopping terrorism or will instead have the effect of quickening the cycle of violence in the middle east.

​ Let us remember that the violence began long ago. It has already taken a great many lives. It has not been so much a cycle of violence as a one-sided campaign of killing and maiming by ruthless terrorists, many with close connections with Libya. The response of the countries whose citizens have been attacked has not so far stopped that campaign.

Mr. Wareing

Will the Prime Minister give way on that point?

The Prime Minister

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later. Please may I continue with this point?

Mr. Faulds

Why not give way to me?

The Prime Minister

Indeed, one has to ask whether it has not been the failure to act in self-defence that has encouraged state-sponsored terrorism. Firm and decisive action may make those who continue to practise terrorism as a policy think again. I give way to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing).

Mr. Wareing

Would the Prime Minister agree that if her argument is correct we should all be feeling very much safer? Can she therefore explain why, for the first time since the early days of my election to the House, I was asked this morning—as all hon. Members have been asked—for my pass and my car was searched in order to ensure our safety? Am I to feel safe now as a result of this attack?

The Prime Minister

I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would see the wisdom of taking heightened precautions. It would have been folly not to do so.

It has also been suggested that the United States action will only build up Colonel Gaddafi’s prestige and support in the Arab world. In the very short term, one must expect statements of support for Libya from other Arab countries—although one is entitled to ask how profound or durable that support will be. But moderate Arab Governments, indeed moderate Governments everywhere, have nothing to gain from seeing Colonel Gaddafi build up power and influence by persisting in policies of violence and terror.

Their interest, like ours, lies in seeing the problems of the middle east solved by peaceful negotiation, a negotiation whose chances of success will be much enhanced if terrorism can be defeated.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) rose—

The Prime Minister

I shall not give way now.

Let me emphasise one very important point. A peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israel question remains our policy and we shall continue to seek ways forward with moderate Arab Governments. Indeed, I shall be seeing King Hussein later this week to discuss this very matter.

Mr. Beith

To what extent does the Prime Minister think that Colonel Gaddafi’s capacity to mount attacks of terrorism has been reduced by the measures taken by the United States?

The Prime Minister

I believe that his capacity and the will of the people to do so have been impaired by the actions that have taken place.

The United States is our greatest ally. It is the foundation of the Alliance which has preserved our security and peace for more than a generation. In defence of liberty, our liberty as well as its own, the United States ​ maintains in Western Europe 330,000 service men. That is more than the whole of Britain’s regular forces. The United States gave us unstinting help when we needed it in the South Atlantic four years ago.

The growing threat of international terrorism is not directed solely at the United States. We in the United Kingdom have also long been in the front line. To overcome the threat is in the vital interests of all countries founded upon freedom and the rule of law.

Terrorism exploits the natural reluctance of a free society to defend itself, in the last resort, with arms. Terrorism thrives on appeasement. Of course we shall continue to make every effort to defeat it by political means. But in this case that was not enough. The time had come for action. The United States took it. Its decision was justified, and, as friends and allies, we support it.