§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
I wish to draw to the attention of the House, as I last did in an Adjournment debate in March 1979, the considerable expansion and general success of the United Nations peacekeeping operations, to put forward some ideas on future developments and to probe the Government to find out what they are doing to match fine words with deeds.
I do so in the knowledge that an advance party of British troops is deployed today in Namibia, formerly South-West Africa, as part of the UN transitional advisory group, which is known as UNTAG for short. It is remiss of the House and the Government that we have not yet debated its participation in this important international operation.
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to the debate. What a far beach has lost, the Front Bench has gained. His contribution will be listened to and read afterwards most carefully.
The renewed interest in this form of intervention and its part in the peaceful settlement of disputes, following the award in 1988 of the Nobel peace prize to United Nations peacekeeping forces, is to be welcomed and encouraged. As a former professional soldier I believe that peacekeeping by United Nations forces has become an essential part of the work done by the United Nations for international harmony and security. We must not under-estimate the problems, but here surely is one crucial area of United Nations activity in which major advances can and must be made. So far, well over 100,000 soldiers from a third of the world's armies have worn the pale blue beret or helmet—a remarkable fact.
Peacekeeping is the use of an international force, by invitation, to reduce violence. It has nothing to do with the use of force to impose order or suppress an opponent. It is an invention of the United Nations and nothing like it existed in history before 1945. For the past 30 years, at least one United Nations force has been on duty at any given time in some part of the world. United Nations forces watched over the two truces of 1948 between Israel and its Arab neighbours. In 1949 they watched over the ceasefire in Kashmir and demonstrated how a relatively small number of observers can successfully maintain a ceasefire. Then came Korea in 1950 and Suez in 1956, when they supervised the withdrawal of Israeli, British and French forces. In 1960 the Congo tied up 20,000 United Nations soldiers for four years at a cost of 126 lives and about £200 million. It has been argued that the intervention of the United Nations force in Sinai in 1973 may have prevented a world war.
Today in the Lebanon, on the Israeli border, UNIFIL faces the most complex and dangerous challenge since the Congo bloodbath. Since it was established in 1978, the force has suffered 170 fatalities. I should like its mandate to be strengthened. Israel is responsible for the South Lebanon army, which has been firing on UNIFIL soldiers —the SLA should be disbanded forthwith.
Since my last debate on peacekeeping, the most important change has been the resolve of the USSR at last to recognise the worth of United Nations peacekeeping 1331 and to pay its outstanding dues as a further show of confidence in this aspect of the United Nations' international responsibilities.
I like to think that the Foreign Office is privately pressing the Bush Administration to renew the commitment of the United States of America to the United Nations and to make up the deficit in the payment of its dues. That is a shameful legacy from the Reagan Administration, and my hon. Friend will agree that that shortfall in the United Nations budget resulting from the abstention of the United States of America affects the very existence of the United Nations.
The United Nations peacekeeping methodology has been shown, by experience, to be more effective than unilateral or bilateral interventions from outside the United Nations. Britain took part in the ill-fated multilateral force in the Lebanon, which itself became a party in the dispute. When that force was withdrawn in disarray, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who had not previously shown much enthusiasm for the United Nations, offered the job to that world body.
British soldiers, I maintain, are good at peacekeeping. Years of using minimum force and giving aid to the civil power—from Borneo to Aden and Belize, culminating in Zimbabwe—have given them an enviable record. The 1988 Statement on the Defence Estimates reported:Our contribution to international peacekeeping forces has not changed: we provide contingents to the multinational force and observers in Sinai and the UN forces in Cyprus; and the Cyprus sovereign base areas give logistic support to the UN forces in Cyprus, Lebanon and on the Golan Heights.A few years ago I spent a morning with 40 Royal Marine Commando who were on duty with the UN along the so-called green line in Nicosia, and most impressive they were. We play the main role in the UN force in Cyprus, with some 800 men attached to it, the largest single national element. I only wish that Britain's contribution to the UN was better known in this country and abroad.
Peacekeeping is also superb training for our defence forces, giving them overseas service outside Germany—all too rare—and vital experience of international co-operation. It has real value for the young NCO and the inexperienced but enthusiastic young soldier. It is excellent that we should be taking part in UNTAG and we look forward to Namibia becoming the UN's 160th member. The House has yet to be told of the exact composition of the British contingent, its likely tasks and responsibilities. We need to know what will be the rules for opening fire, how casualties will be evacuated, and to which hospitals, whether the bodies will be returned to the United Kingdom if there are any deaths, whether the Minister will be visiting our contingent in Namibia shortly, and if not, why not.
The size of the military component has been the subject of controversy. It is to comprise 4,650 persons initially, not the 7,500 originally authorised. Concern has been expressed on both sides of the House, at Question Time and in an early-day motion that I tabled, at the small size of this force in what is a large country. It seems that financial reasons, not unimportant in themselves, were the dominant reasons.
The Minister will have been told of the long list of individuals and organisations who have opposed the reduction of UNTAG, including, I am told, its commander, Lieutenant General Prem Chand. UNTAG's task is to monitor the disarming and dismantling of 1332 command structures of citizen forces, commando units and ethnic forces, South African counter-insurgency units, the confinement of SWAPO combatants to their Angolan and Zambian bases and the phased withdrawal of the South African defence forces. It is also responsible for border surveillance.
By definition, all those tasks—and there are many more —according to an internal UN document,require the military component of UNTAG to be very extensively deployed at strategic points along the length of the borders and to maintain a highly mobile reserve to react to any hostile acts.There are good reasons to think that the size of the force is not sufficient to perform its assigned tasks. The discrepancy in numbers alone is enormous. The war zone in northern Namibia is one of the most concentrated areas of military personnel in the world, and about 50,000 Cuban troops will still be across the border in Angola.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that Britain will carefully watch the position and be prepared to press for the size of the force to be increased, should that become necessary? One wonders how difficult that might be in practice as new troops would need to acclimatise. Are British troops on standby for possible reinforcement of UNTAG in a few weeks' time?
The study of United Nations-style peacekeeping deserves greater attention by the British military. There appears to be very little training in peacekeeping for units or individual officers. The peacekeeping handbook should be the recognised training manual for that form of military duty.
The Nordic countries co-ordinate the training of staff and technical officers for specific duties within United Nations peacekeeping forces. Did our contingent in Namibia receive such training? Will the Minister tell us, either now or in a letter, how many hours are devoted to United Nations peacekeeping on British officer training courses and in cadet and staff colleges?
In 1979, the Government told the United Nations Secretary-General of theirreadiness to share training experience in respect of peacekeeping".Was that followed up? Is not the time ripe to look anew at machinery and conduct of United Nations peacekeeping operations and improve them?
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
Will my hon. Friend note that Monday is the centenary of the death of John Bright, one of the greatest peacekeepers in British history? In the context of peacekeeping in the United Nations, it would be highly suitable for us to recall the work of that great man and note that there is a strong relationship between what he said in his own time and what my hon. Friend is saying now?
§ Mr. Townsend
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interesting comment.
It would be excellent if our Government were to take an active part in the United Nations in bringing about a necessary review. When the United Nations is acquiring a new and brighter image it should expect the whole-hearted support of its founder members. Does the Government support the call from the Soviet Union for the reactivation of the military staff committee, with a wider membership and better terms of reference? Why should the membership of that committee be confined to permanent member states 1333 of the Security Council when other countries such as Ghana, Nepal and Fiji can boast of considerable United Nations peacekeeping experience?
What thoughts do the Government have for improving the standard operating procedures for UN forces? Should there not be a study of UN peacebuilding as a third lane alongside UN peacemaking and peacekeeping? In the Congo a UN civilian operation was mounted beside the military peacekeeping operation to assist in the reconstruction of the fabric of the Congo's administrative structure. It achieved excellent results. A peacebuilding element might become part of each UN peacekeeping operation, with its tasks dictated by humanitarian considerations. The peacebuilding role would precede and outlast peacemaking and peacekeeping.
In 1978 President Jimmy Carter called forthe creation of UN peacekeeping reserve composed of national contingents trained in peacekeeping functions?Nobody wants a standing army, but a small reserve bringing together international experts might be a good idea. Such a reserve would have the very latest day and night surveillance equipment including infra-red aids and listening devices such as the Army uses in Northern Ireland, and drones. The application of highly sophisticated scientific techniques including the use of satellites could help the UN solve problems which have previously been insoluble, and thereby reduce tension. As an illustration, the electric monitoring of air traffic on a military base could help to reduce the possibility of a surprise attack in the region such as the Gulf, where the most uneasy peace prevails between Iran and Iraq.
That small reserve might include a United Nations disaster relief force which would be highly trained and mobile. It could tackle disasters, such as those following earthquakes, cyclones or a major chemical or nuclear radiation leak in a developing country. Why should the reserve not help carry supplies to the starving through hostile territory or physically protect refugees, such as those in the Lebanon, from mayhem and mutilation?
Recently the world had to sit back and watch while a Lebanese faction sought to starve the inhabitants of a refugee camp to death. In future it is possible that there will be more demands for UN forces than for resources. Will a force be required for Afghanistan or Kampuchea? If there should be a successful international conference on the Palestine-Israel issue in the next five years, it is likely that UN forces will be required as part of the security guarantees.
I hope that I have said enough in this brief debate to activate the Government to use Britain's privileged position as a member of the Security Council to strengthen the world body's peacekeeping role. Peacekeeping is no vague, woolly, over-idealistic notion. History suggests that a comparatively small UN force can reduce tension and aggression, thus facilitating a diplomatic settlement. UN peacekeeping is good news, offering hope to a violent world. It is a success and we should build on it. It would be wonderful to see the United Kingdom showing the way forward.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Timothy Eggar)
I know that the House recognises the long-standing and almost 1334 solo interest among hon. Members of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) in this subject. He raised several interesting and somewhat detailed points which I cannot answer this afternoon, but I shall ensure that either I or my right hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence will respond to them.
It is sad that it has taken 10 years since my hon. Friend's last debate on United Nations peacekeeping for UN peacekeeping to be accorded the international attention which both he and I think it deserves. Although inevitably the new demands on UN peacekeeping have thrown up several problems, not least that of managing the cost, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the current interest in peacekeeping is preferable to the general neglect of 10 years ago. Britain has long supported UN peacekeeping and I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to do so.
It is interesting for the House to recall the origins of peacekeeping. The United Nations charter envisaged using troops only to impose an international peace against aggressors. That concept soon proved unworkable. United Nations peacekeeping evolved in a variety of forms in relation to a variety of problems. Now United Nations forces patrol buffer zones, check troop withdrawals and will, in Namibia, supervise free and fair elections.
As my hon. Friend said, since 1974 the United Nations force in Cyprus has patrolled a buffer zone between the two communities. It is a prime example of Britain's commitment to peacekeeping. We contribute the largest contingency of troops, 741 men to be exact, at a cost last year of about £24 million. We believe that our participation in UNFICYP complements our continuing support for the United Nations Secretary-General's efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement of the problem. The force provides the background of stability against which he can pursue his initiative.
We also contribute a signals squadron to the United Nations transitional advisory group, the United Nations force in Namibia, for which the people of Namibia have waited too long. I shall ensure that more information about that force is made available to my hon. Friend.
Like my hon. Friend, the Government warmly welcome the award of last year's Nobel peace prize to United Nations peacekeeping forces. That was a fitting tribute to the courage of thousands of men and women who have worn blue helmets in the cause of international peace. Many of those men have died as a result. The House will wish to join me in extending our sympathy to the families of the three Irish soldiers who were killed earlier this week in the Lebanon.
My hon. Friend mentioned his concern about UNIFIL. In common with our European Community partners and others, we remain committed to UNIFIL as a force of stability in southern Lebanon. We deplore the recent increase in fighting and all attacks on UNIFIL. Shooting at UNIFIL is completely unjustified. We condemn punitive expulsion—despite UNIFIL protests—of old men, women and children from their houses in Israel's self-declared security zone.
The continued Israeli military presence in the Lebanon is provocative, destabilising and against Israel's own long-term interests. We have repeatedly urged the Israelis to complete their withdrawal from the Lebanon and to allow UNIFIL to deploy to the international border in accordance with UN security resolution No. 425. We share the concern expressed by the UN Secretary-General about 1335 the recent deterioration in the situation, and that concern was reflected in the European Community's declaration on 20 March.
The essence of successful peacekeeping is flexibility and, of course, the co-operation of the parties directly involved. The current arrangements for peacekeeping enable the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council to respond rapidly to any demand. The UN has been fortunate in being especially well served by two British international civil servants dealing with and having primary responsibility for peacekeeping in the UN secretariat. First, there was the almost legendary Sir Brian Urquhart and now there is his successor Marrack Goulding. Their contribution to the efficient planning and implementation of UN peacekeeping operations has been and continues to be of enormous importance. In our view, and in the view of others, informal arrangements for peacekeeping have worked and will continue to work best.
I note my hon. Friend's call for a more active role for an enlarged military staff committee. The military staff committee is a body established under that section of the charter dealing with the enforcement of the peace. It is not immediately apparent that its involvement would improve the arrangements for UN peacekeep-ing as against enforcement. The composition of any peacekeeping force is often a delicate political matter. It is unlikely to prove possible to enlarge the military staff committee to take account of every possible circumstance.
It is a matter of regret that UN peacekeeping has not always enjoyed the whole-hearted support of the international community. Every member of the UN is called upon to contribute to the funding of UN peacekeeping. In the case of most major peacekeeping operations—of which UNTAG is a good example—all members of the UN pay according to a scale based on their nation's gross domestic product, but that scale is adjusted to require slightly more from the permanent members of the Security Council—including, of course, the United Kingdom—in order that the poorest members of the UN may pay rather less. We—and the other permanent members of the Security Council—have not objected to this scale of levy in recognition of the key role that peacekeeping plays in the maintenance of international peace and security, but the overall record of payment is not good. At the last count more than half the members of the UN were in arrears and the amount owed to the UN was staggeringly more than $372 million. That regrettable state of affairs risks undermining UN peacekeeping more than anything else.
In our view withholding peacekeeping dues for any reason is unacceptable. The fact that both super powers are among the long list of debtors is a cause of great concern. The Soviet Union—one of the more reluctant converts to UN peacekeeping—began withholding its dues in 1976. By 1987 it owed more than $197 million. Despite an assurance in October of that year that it would repay its arrears over the following five years, the amount currently outstanding is still $143 million. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the United States decision to withhold or delay its full due in respect of peacekeeping. Currently, United States' arrears amount to $103 million. We have made clear to the United States Administration our severe reservations about that policy. I am glad to say that, in January this year, the Americans announced that they hoped to resume full funding of all their UN-assessed contributions from October 1989.
1336 The rather precarious financial position of UN peacekeeping must be seen against the background of rising demand. Last year three new peacekeeping forces were created and others are in the pipeline. Inevitably, members of the UN have been obliged to take more interest in the overall cost of the peacekeeping efforts. It would be short-sighted to do otherwise. The accent now —thanks in part to our efforts—is on both effective and cost-effective peacekeeping.
In that context we must consider the recent negotiations on the total size of UNTAG. My hon. Friend mentioned a number of countries that he said opposed the final decision of the Security Council, but I must remind him that all five permanent members of the Security Council were united in their approach. I must emphasise, however, as my hon. Friend implied, that the overall ceiling for the size of UNTAG remains as originally proposed. The Secretary-General has the power to request the Security Council to authorise reinforcement up to this limit at any time should the circumstances require it. We and other members of the Security Council have assured the Secretary-General that we shall respond promptly to any such request that he may make. UNTAG will, of course, have a medical unit supplied by the Swiss Government. I will ensure that my hon. Friend gets an answer to the other detailed points that he raised regarding UNTAG.
It would be wrong, however, to leave the House with the impression that our main concern with peacekeeping at the UN has been to reduce its cost. In company with members of the European Community, we recently submitted to the Secretary-General some practical proposals on how United Nations peacekeeping opera-tions might be made more effective. This was in response to a resolution passed at last year's General Assembly inviting member states to submit their observations. In their reply, the 12 members of the Community made clear their full support for United Nations peacekeeping, as well as conveying suggestions for improvement.
One idea was that greater use might be made of smaller-scale observer-type operations to perform certain tasks such as those in Afghanistan, and possibly, soon, in central America. The Twelve also suggested that it would be useful for member states to notify the Secretary General of their willingness, in principle to participate in peacekeeping operations and to state in what particular area they would be prepared to help, for example, by contributing troops, observers, civilian personnel, equipment and so on. In other words, there would be a potential list—a reservoir—of potential areas of help on which the Secretary-General could draw at fairly short notice.
The European Community also made proposals on the training of peacekeeping personnel—my hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of that. New demands on soldiers result not only from the new concept of soldiers being involved in peacekeeping—that is a new concept for many armies—but because each situation that they are required to face tends to differ depending on the particular task that the United Nations has given to them.
As my hon. Friend has said, the Scandinavians already provide some training—they run courses for peacekeeping. I assure my hon. Friend that the EC suggestion on training will be discussed with the Secretary-General and we shall have to await the outcome of those discussions.
I shall try to deal with all the points that I have not covered today by letter to my hon. Friend.
1337 During the past year the improvements in East-West relations and the Soviet Union's decision to end some of her overseas adventures have led to major progress in the resolution of regional conflicts in many parts of the world —a process in which the UN has had an important role and from which its standing has gained. The presence of a UN peacekeeping force is often the first step for parties who wish to find their way from the battlefield to the 1338 negotiating table. The Government are proud of their support for UN peacekeeping and we urge all members of the UN to demonstrate their support too.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Before we adjourn, may I wish all hon. Members and our officials and staff a very happy Easter recess.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at half-past Three o'clock till Tuesday 4 April, pursuant to resolution [13 March].