The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the Gulf War – 15 January 1991

Below is Mr Major’s statement made in the House of Commons on 15th January 1991 regarding the Gulf War.

Mr. Speaker Before I call the Prime Minister, may I say that a very large number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate in this very important debate. I propose to put a limit of 10 minutes on speeches between 6 o’clock and 8 o’clock, but I ask those who are called before that, particularly if they are Privy Councillors, to bear that limit in mind.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since there have been two debates on the Gulf in the past few months, may I ask whether you will give preference to hon. Members who did not speak in those debates?

Mr. Speaker I shall seek to balance opinion in the House.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) There is overwhelming concern in Parliament and in the country about the situation in the Gulf. That concern is shared by everyone, but must self evidently be most acutely felt by the families and friends of our troops at present in the Gulf.

The position has been brought about, first, by Iraq’s illegal invasion of Kuwait and, secondly, by its continued and blatant refusal to implement the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and to withdraw wholly and unconditionally from the country which it invaded in early August. It is now five and a half months since the first of the resolutions and the deadline for Iraq to comply runs out today. Therefore, the Government thought it entirely right for the House to debate the situation.

Since we last discussed these matters on 11 December last year, there have been important diplomatic and military developments. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have both visited the middle east to discuss the position with the rulers and with the Governments there. I have recently met President Bush, President Mitterrand, and Secretary Baker for the same purpose and my right hon. Friend has been in constant contact with his European Community colleagues and many others. Yesterday, upon his return from Baghdad, I also spoke at length to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I intend to cover those developments shortly, although I shall not on this occasion go into the detailed background to the present crisis, which was dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) with characteristic clarity last September. I shall, however, report on the various discussions that my right hon. Friend and I have had. I shall then explain why the Government regard full implementation of the United Nations resolutions as being so crucial. Finally, I shall set out to the House how we intend to act.

Before I do so, I should like to make one general point. I hope that this debate will not in any way be seen either here or, perhaps more appropriately, beyond here as a party-political or partisan occasion. With the clear danger of hostilities looming, through no wish of anyone in this country or the House, it seems to me acutely important that our forces in the Gulf should feel that they have the united support of the vast majority of the House and of the country. It will be in that spirit in which the Government approach the debate.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) rose –

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) rose –

The Prime Minister I should like to make a little progress, if the hon. Gentlemen will forgive me.

Since the invasion on 2 August the international community has collectively and repeatedly called on Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, 12 Security Council resolutions have been passed, either unanimously or with very substantial majorities, and dozens of visits to Baghdad and appeals to Saddam Hussein have been made by international statesmen from many countries. Most recently, the United States Secretary of State, James Baker, has met Tariq Aziz in Geneva and the Secretary-General of the United Nations has met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Despite all this, Iraq is still in Kuwait and shows no imminent signs of leaving. I fear that the contrary is the case. In recent weeks Iraq has continued to increase the size of its forces in and around Kuwait. There are now nearly 600,000 troops, more than 4,000 tanks and more than 3,000 artillery pieces. Its defences are continually being strengthened. Chemical weapons, already used by Saddam Hussein against his own people, have been deployed. Contrary to international agreements, Iraq has produced and threatened to use both chemical and biological weapons, the use of which would be wholly contrary to international agreements. Iraq also continues to develop a nuclear weapon, although we do not believe thus far that she has succeeded in doing so.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) rose –

The Prime Minister If the hon. Gentleman will let me make a little progress, I shall give way to him later.

At the same time, Iraq has constantly and, in my view, cynically changed the pretexts given for its invasion of Kuwait. At various times we have been told that the invasion took place for different reasons: first, because Kuwait had artificially depressed the world price of oil; then because Kuwait had failed to pay compensation to Iraq for lost revenues; and then because it had occupied territory on Iraq’s border. We were then told that there had been a coup d’etat in Kuwait and a new Government established that had appealed for Iraqi support. That absurd untruth soon disappeared without trace. Then we were informed that Kuwait had been wholly absorbed into Iraq, and the Iraqi information Minister told the world ‘to forget that a place called Kuwait had ever existed.’ It was even suggested that Kuwait had been attacked because it posed a threat to Iraq’s security – a notion so absurd that the whole world dismissed it with contempt, and dismissed it immediately.

Finally, we were told, least credibly of all, that the purpose of the invasion had been to bring about a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian question. In my discussions in the Gulf, I have found that non-Iraqi Arab leaders are particularly contemptuous of that excuse and have made that crystal clear to me and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The real fact is that Iraq’s action has made a settlement of that longstanding and very real problem infinitely more difficult. Only when Iraq has withdrawn from Kuwait shall we be able to resume efforts to find a solution with any hope of success – and that, of course, we shall seek to continue to do.

Rarely in history can there have been a more cynical catalogue of lies and deceits. The reality is clear for all to see: Iraq has used military force to wipe Kuwait off the face of the map and to plunder its resources. Nor is that all. Intimidation, torture and murder of the Kuwaiti people have continued without respite. The appalling details have been carefully and shockingly catalogued in the report by Amnesty International, which should be compulsory reading for everyone who expresses a view on this issue.

What the report reveals is truly shocking: people executed – in my view, murdered would be a better word – for failing to display a photograph of Saddam Hussein in their homes; teenage boys murdered in the sight of their mothers and sisters, their bodies then left on the street as garbage and their families forbidden to take their corpses home to give them a decent burial. This is literally horrifying, a tale of unbelievable and sickening cruelty since last August.

Those who caution delay because they hate war – hate the very thought of war, as all hon. Members must surely do – must ask themselves this question: how much longer should the world stand by and risk these atrocities continuing in Kuwait?

Mr. Cryer rose –

Mr. Strang rose –

Mr. Nellist rose –

The Prime Minister We are talking not only of atrocities. Hundreds of thousands of Kuwaitis have been forced to leave their country as a part of a systematic effort to change populations, to expunge records and to erase national identity itself. At the start of August, there were 700,000 Kuwaitis in Kuwait; today there are 250,000, a fall of two thirds. Organised robbery has taken place on a gigantic scale, with everything from cars and buses to medical equipment – even incubators for use in hospitals – being taken away: stolen, ransacked and taken as spoils of war to Iraq.

What we are seeing is not just a simple dispute or everyday difference of opinion. What we are witnessing in Kuwait is an attempt to eliminate an entire state by a dictator who has shown himself to be a thorough force for evil in his actions over recent years.
Despite all this, neither we nor our international partners have given up our efforts to find a peaceful solution on the basis of full implementation of the United Nations resolutions. The United Nations, the European Community, the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference have all separately tried to persuade Iraq to comply with the Security Council resolutions. Many individual countries and Governments have made their contribution. And yet, what happened last week when Secretary Baker met the Iraqi Foreign Minister in Geneva to try yet again to bring about a peaceful solution? Tariq Aziz refused even to mention Kuwait or to discuss withdrawal. He showed no flexibility or, shockingly, any remorse for the crimes that have been committed in Kuwait since the beginning of August. And an invitation to Tariq Aziz to meet the European Community was brusquely and immediately rejected and ignored.

Subsequently, as the House knows, the United Nations Secretary-General travelled to Baghdad to offer his good offices. We welcomed that unreservedly. Even at that late stage we hoped that reason would prevail. Mr. Perez de Cuellar’s mission had the full support of Britain, of the United States and of the European Community and, I believe, the full support of the whole world community which holds him in such continual respect. Yet his involvement demonstrated, perhaps more clearly than anything else could, that the confrontation is not just between the United States and Iraq or the west and Iraq, but between the United Nations and an aggressor that has overrun a neighbouring small and innocent country.

But I am sorry to report that the Secretary-General’s efforts, too, were crudely and brutally brushed aside. When I spoke to him yesterday he told me, without any doubt or hesitation, that there was nothing favourable to report from his meeting with Saddam Hussein; not the slightest sign of willingness to comply with the Security Council resolution either now or in the future.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) In the event of an unprovoked attack on Israel in the days ahead, what would be the British Government’s response and what consultation has there been with other Governments about that possibility?

The Prime Minister Of course that possibility is one which we have been considering, not least because Saddam Hussein has made it clear on a number of occasions that he may seek to involve a nation at present standing wholly adrift from this particular dispute in the way described. I hope very much that that will not happen and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not speculate on what would follow, but I feel sure that the international community, at present part of the allied force, would regard that as a wholly unacceptable way for Iraq to behave and would respond accordingly. I hope very much indeed that the restraint that has been shown by the state of Israel will continue in the weeks ahead. That restraint has been extremely helpful.

In the past 24 hours the House will have seen reports of a French initiative put forward just a few hours after the European Community Foreign Ministers had concluded that the conditions for an initiative no longer existed. It would be more accurate to say that what is involved is an appeal to Saddam Hussein to reconsider and to withdraw even at this late hour, and that is something which we all wish to see. But what I believe we cannot do is to water down the existing Security Council resolutions. We have supported those for a long time. They call for total and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal. Nor can we be party to extending the United Nations deadline or in any way reward Iraq for its aggression.

Those are the criteria on which we would judge any proposal. Saddam Hussein must be given no false expectation that peace can be had without complete and full implementation of the Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) I think that the whole House agrees with the Prime Minister that there can be no question of a watering down of existing United Nations resolutions, but, according to the report in The Independent today, the French initiative calls on the Security Council to ask Iraq ‘to announce without further delay its” – ’ Iraq’s – ‘intention to pull out of Kuwait according to a set timetable and to begin now with a rapid and large-scale withdrawal.’ Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he regards that as being a watering down of the terms of the United Nations resolutions?

The Prime Minister Let me reiterate the point in order to put it in its proper context. We fully subscribe to the idea of a last appeal to Saddam Hussein to obey the Security Council resolutions. We have no difficulty with that point. But we do have considerable difficulty with the French text. All along we have supported the Security Council resolutions and we must judge the French text by two criteria: whether it is wholly consistent with the United Nations Security Council resolutions and whether it is likely to lead Iraq to comply with those resolutions or simply have the effect of taking the pressure off Iraq at this very late stage. In our judgment, it fails those tests and it is for that reason that, although we are content with the idea of a last appeal, we cannot accept and cannot support the particular proposition put forward by the French.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) It would appear that one of the major reasons why the Government reject the French initiative, which I certainly welcome, is the matter of linkage. But is the Prime Minister aware that when the war begins a linkage denied in the conference hall may be established on the battlefield within hours and if Israel is drawn into the conflict the two issues will come together? Is he also aware that, when the war is over, the proposal made by President Mitterrand will be the basis of the peace conference? Why cannot we have the peace proposal before the bloodshed instead of afterwards?

The Prime Minister As I indicated to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), I did not share the view put forward by the French that their proposal is wholly consistent with the United Nations resolutions as we have thus far known them. Perhaps I may elaborate on that point. The French text only calls on Iraq to announce its intention to withdraw according to a timetable. The Security Council has called for an immediate, total and unconditional withdrawal. There is a distinction. But equally relevant is the fact that I do not think that we would be wise to place much faith in an indication of Iraq’s intentions against the background of the lies, deceit and treachery that we have seen in the last six months. There is no basis of trust and therefore we must rely on an appeal either from the Security Council or from the Secretary-General that is wholly and completely consistent with the resolutions that we have supported for so long.

If I add in reply to the right hon. Gentleman a word about my discussion with President Mitterrand, he may find it useful. My clear impression from my discussions with President Mitterrand yesterday is that, like all of us, he hopes and prays that hostilities can be avoided. But particularly in the wake of Iraq’s totally negative response to the United Nations Secretary-General, President Mitterrand sees no realistic prospect that Iraq can now be persuaded to take the essential step of withdrawing from Kuwait.

No one, anywhere, can claim that the international community has not tried for peace. If it turns out that we shall have failed, we shall have failed only because Iraq has rejected every attempt to reach a diplomatic solution.

Mr. Dalyell Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will permit me to make a little more progress.

In parallel with those diplomatic efforts, the international community has, with very few exceptions and contraventions, applied economic sanctions against Iraq. As the House knows, they are among the most sweeping sanctions ever agreed by the United Nations. They have interrupted 90 per cent. of Iraq’s foreign trade and have caused widespread dislocation of its economy.

What is the real test of the sanctions? It is not just whether they cause economic misery in Iraq. The real test is whether they bring about Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. So far, they have failed to achieve that. [HON. MEMBERS: “Give them time to work.”] I will deal precisely with the points that Opposition Members want to raise, if they will give me a moment. It is clear that the sanctions will not succeed by the deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, or for a very long time after that.

There are those who argue – and I understand their concern – that we should give sanctions more time to work. But at what price should we give them more time to work? Allowing more time for sanctions to work has other implications.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East) The Prime Minister has again referred to the tragic plight of the people of Kuwait, of whom perhaps 2,000 have already been killed since the beginning of August. What does the right hon. Gentleman think would be the effect on the people of Kuwait of a war to reconquer Kuwait? Has he read the report in today’s Financial Times in which one of the leading members of the al-Sabah family, speaking from the comfort of his luxury hotel in Dhahran, hundreds of miles from the fighting line, said that he would be quite happy to see the “flattening” of Kuwait if it meant that he got back sovereignty of the territory? Does the Prime Minister really think that that sort of war will do anything to help the people of Kuwait?

The Prime Minister The liberation of Kuwait is an important principle. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, other important principles are at stake in this dispute and in a few moments I will deal with them at some length. If the right hon. Gentleman will permit me, I shall return to the point about the time taken for sanctions to work. [HON. MEMBERS: “Answer.”] I will return to the points raised earlier about sanctions, to which the House is entitled to a reply. The point that was concerning the House was whether we should give sanctions more time to work. I said that more time for sanctions has other implications. It also means more time for Iraq to continue to extinguish Kuwait. It means more time for Iraq to prepare its defences against allied troops and perhaps a greater subsequent cost in the lives of allied troops. It means more time during which Kuwaitis will be tortured or killed. Because sanctions are not having their intended effect, we would, in addition, in practice be extending the deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal while relaxing pressure on Iraq to comply.

Mr. Strang rose –

The Prime Minister If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall continue.
To do so would destroy the credibility of the international community’s response to Iraq’s aggression and that is why I do not believe that we have the time, nor would we be wise, to let sanctions run a lengthier and fuller course. That is the situation we face.

Several Hon. Members rose –

The Prime Minister If hon. Members will forgive me, I shall make a little more progress.

Mr. Speaker Order. I think that every hon. Member who is rising to intervene is anxious to take part in the debate. They will not be able to do so if there are constant interruptions.

The Prime Minister The situation that I have just outlined is the situation we must face. Throughout recent months the Government have taken great care to consult their allies, the United States, Europe and – perhaps most important of all in many ways – the Arab world. Last week I met the Emir of Kuwait, the King of Saudi Arabia, the Sultan of Oman and President Mubarak.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just returned from visits to other Gulf states, as well as Jordan and Turkey, on which he will report in his winding-up speech. Earlier this week I spoke to Mr. Mulroney, Secretary Baker and President Mitterrand –

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) Blood on their hands.

The Prime Minister I wish that the hon. Gentleman would show as much concern for the blood in Kuwait City in the past few months.
Throughout my visits I found a rock-solid determination to make Saddam Hussein withdraw. Among our allies there was no talk of compromise, no talk of concessions, no suggestion that the United Nations’ deadline should be extended and no inclination whatsoever to weaken or back down in the face of Iraq’s intransigence. [Interruption.]

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) rose –

Mr. Speaker Has the hon. Gentleman a point of order for me?

The Prime Minister The resolve of our Arab allies to see the United Nations resolutions implemented remains unshaken and unshakeable – [Interruption]

Mr. Blunkett Does the Prime Minister accept that many of us agree with what he has just said about the need to stand rock solid over the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait, but we would be better able to assess for ourselves the effectiveness of sanctions if we had before us an assessment of how sanctions had worked, the loopholes that existed and what might be done to close them? Does he accept that people like myself, who are willing to agree that there should be greater caution today of all days, are also clear that, if professional troops have to be used to get Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, we would back it if we had the information that he has to enable us to make the judgment that he is making? Will he give the elected Parliament that information so that we can make that judgment for ourselves?

The Prime Minister I have two points to make in reply to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. First, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will deal in his winding-up speech specifically with the details of the impact of sanctions. Secondly, the overall purpose of sanctions is to ensure that Iraq leaves Kuwait. So far they have failed in that respect and show no sign of imminent success.

Mr. Nellist Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall make some progress.

It is to restore the independence of Kuwait, to defend Saudi Arabia and to back up these diplomatic efforts and the peaceful pressure of sanctions that more than 30 nations have contributed to the multinational effort in the Gulf. Over the past few weeks, the scale of those forces has grown steadily. They now contribute an awesome assembly of military power, on a scale not seen since the second world war.
Britain’s contribution to that force numbers more than 35,000 service men and women. I was able to meet a number of them last week while I was in the Gulf. I can tell the House with no equivocation that their morale is high, their professionalism obvious and their confidence impressive. They have the equipment that they need and the determination that we would expect of them. They are working well with their American and other allies.

Mr. Dalyell Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister No, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

I explained to those service men and women while I was there why we had to ask them to be there and what might lie ahead. I told them, too, of the great concern felt for them by everyone at home, as well as the tremendous pride here in their performance in the Gulf. I am in no doubt whatever that they understand the risks and the dangers, as professional service men. They know what they may be asked to do.

Mr. Skinner You are not going to risk your life, are you?

Mr. Speaker Order. The hon. Gentleman should not make accusations of that kind from a sedentary position. It does not add to a debate on such an important matter.

Mr. Skinner Yesterday, my hon. Friends and I demanded a vote on whether we go to war – [interruption.]

Mr. Speaker Order. The hon. Gentleman must sit down.

The Prime Minister Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman in all sincerity that, whatever he may think, I would have been proud to be there with those young men and women. As professional service men, they know what they may be asked to do. They left me in no doubt that they are both able and ready to do it.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds) As one who has a son in the Gulf, may I ask my right hon. Friend to explain the exact chain of command from the President of the United States through General Schwarzkopf to the British commanders in the field? Is he satisfied that the British Government are able to make their contribution to that chain of command?

The Prime Minister The troops in the Gulf are under British command and under American tactical control. The degree of liaison in the relationship between both commanders and men in the Gulf was – on the evidence of my own eyes – very high and very impressive. My hon. Friend would have been perfectly satisfied with it had he been there.

Mr. Nellist Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have given way a number of times. I am conscious that a large number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to express their own views, and I want to leave them some time in which to do so.
Peaceful means of persuading Iraq to withdraw – the diplomatic efforts, the sanctions and the allied military presence – have been tried for six months now, but without success. A line has to be drawn somewhere and it has been drawn – not hastily by us or by any one state, but deliberately and collectively by the United Nations Security Council with resolution 678.

From tomorrow the situation changes. We continue to hope and to look for a peaceful solution, but from tomorrow we shall also be justified in using all necessary means of bringing about Iraq’s withdrawal; and that includes the use of force. That is not a pleasant prospect, but, as we face it, let us never forget that the decision to use force was first taken by Saddam Hussein entirely of his own choosing when he chose to invade Kuwait.

The principles at stake are crucial and we must uphold them. First – I hope that this is not too simplistic, but I feel it deeply – there is a clear dividing line between what is right and what is wrong and what Saddam Hussein has done in Kuwait is, in the simplest and clearest terms, just plain wrong and unforgivable.

Mr. Cryer rose –

The Prime Minister I am surprised that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has so little interest in the principles at stake in this matter that he is unwilling to listen to them.

Secondly –

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East) rose –

The Prime Minister Secondly – [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker Order. The hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) is seeking to take part in the debate. He will not be able to do so if Saddam Hussein behaves in that way.

The Prime Minister Secondly, if Saddam Hussein were to get away with his aggression and gain from it, other small countries in the vicinity, and those elsewhere in the world with large and potentially aggressive neighbours, will all too likely face similar problems and similar dangers. That is the second reason why there can be no deals, no partial withdrawal and no artificial linkage to solutions of other problems – nothing but absolute commitment to implement the Security Council’s resolutions in full and without delay.

Thirdly, the failure to secure Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal would have grave implications for the balance of power throughout the middle east. It would mean putting off difficulties today at the expense of greater difficulties in the not-too-distant future – greater difficulties made more intransigent as Iraq acquires even more devastating and dangerous weapons and as its appetite for success and conquest grows.
But there is a fourth, overriding point. We have made progress, particularly over the past 12 months, towards establishing in many ways a more peaceful world in which there is greater respect for the United Nations and its resolutions. At last it has seemed that the United Nations might live up to the aspirations of its founders. All our hopes for that would fall away if we were to allow Saddam Hussein to get away with swallowing up Kuwait in the way that he proposes. It simply cannot, must not and will not be permitted. So, if we are to have that safe world, we must demonstrate conclusively that aggression cannot succeed. If we fail to do so, when nearly the whole world is united against Iraq, we will face a heavy penalty ourselves for any future aggression. Much of the responsibility would rest with us.

For all those reasons, we have all made it clear to Saddam Hussein that he must withdraw. We have also made it clear that if he leaves Kuwait and returns within the borders of Iraq, force will not be used against him. Let me reiterate that point: if he voluntarily retreats and withdraws into Iraq, he will not be attacked there. But if he does not leave, force will be used and he will be expelled from Kuwait.

Mr. Dalyell rose –

The Prime Minister Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me?

I hope that Saddam Hussein understands the sheer weight of the forces that are ranged against him and the scale of armour and equipment which the multinational alliance has at its disposal. If he realises that, he will also realise that he cannot win and that the only consequence of failing to withdraw is to bring about the destruction of his armed forces and great damage to his country.

We do not want a conflict. We are not thirsting for war, but if it comes I believe that it would be a just war. However great the costs of such a war might be, they would be less than those that we would face if we failed to stand up for the principle of what is right, and to stand up for it now. I believe that if Iraq does not withdraw, the time has come to make a stand.

But even now it is not too late for Saddam Hussein to relent and to pull out his forces. We have always seen the possibility that he will do that at the very last moment, but I must tell the House that we see no sign at present that that is likely. None the less, we must hope that he sees sense. We must hope that he does not force the allies to fight. But let him be under no misapprehension at all: if necessary, we will commit our forces to fight. From tomorrow, we are ready, with our allies, to do whatever is necessary to implement the resolutions of the United Nations in full to ensure that Iraqi forces leave Kuwait without condition, without delay and without reward.

Over the months, we have worked for peace and we have hoped for peace; but we are prepared for war, and the choice must be Saddam Hussein’s.