Gavin Strang addressed a public meeting held in the Church Hall Bellfield Street. The text of his speech follows.
I am very pleased to have been asked to come here today. Nothing is more important than war and peace, and I am grateful to have this opportunity to discuss the crisis over Iraq with you.
Whatever else I say this evening, I want to make it clear now that I am sure we are all agreed that we must do all we can to avoid war in Iraq. We know what war means – civilians killed and injured as well as service personnel on both sides. We know the huge power of the US military machine – even when the forces try very hard to minimise civilian casualties, as we saw in Afghanistan, many innocent people are killed and injured.
There will be a range of views expressed tonight – and I think my view may differ from that of the other speaker – but I emphasise that we can all agree that military action would be a deeply regrettable development.
I think it might be helpful to look at a little history now, to establish how we got where we are today.
First let me take you back to 1945. When the United Nations was born in San Francisco in the aftermath of the second world war, it was in the hope that we could develop a world in which we did not go to war on the scale that we had in the past, and that we would rise to the terrible challenge of weapons of mass destruction.
Giving the Security Council the power to enforce the resolutions agreed by the community of nations was quite deliberate. The Security Council was to be the marshal, preventing conflict and restoring and keeping the peace.
Now let’s move forward 46 years, to January 1991 and to the matter in hand: Iraq.
In January 1991, Iraq had just withdrawn from Kuwait and the Gulf War had just ended. Some of you may remember that I opposed that war, as war must always be the last resort and I did not believe that alternative means had been given a chance to work.
The UN Security Council then agreed Resolution 687 which sets out the terms of the ceasefire. The Resolution imposed clear obligations on Iraq for the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction programmes.
The Resolution established a UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to ensure the destruction of Iraq’s chemical, biological and ballistic missile capabilities, and charged the International Atomic Energy Agency with the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear capability. The Resolution also obliged Iraq to recognise the inviolability of its border with Kuwait and to return all Kuwaiti Prisoners of War.
When the terms of the ceasefire resolution were met, and not before, sanctions would be lifted – although subsequently the oil-for-food programme has allowed Iraq to sell unlimited amounts of its oil in order to buy food and medical supplies.
As you will be aware, Iraq violated the terms of the ceasefire agreement throughout the following decade. Just 7 months after the passing of the cease-fire resolution, Iraq was found by the UN to be in ‘material breach’ of its terms. Through the 1990s significant progress was made by the weapons inspectors, but unfortunately Iraq refused to cooperate fully with the inspections process. In November 1998 the Security Council passed a resolution condemning Iraq for “flagrant violation” of the ceasefire resolution and other relevant resolutions.
Then in December 1998 the US and UK launched Operation Desert Fox – four days of air strikes against suspected weapons of mass destruction infrastructure, Republican guard units and key command and control centres.
In the meantime, UNSCOM had become increasingly discredited among some Security Council members, and rumours of the involvement of US and Israeli intelligence abounded.
In December 1999 the Security Council passed Resolution 1284, disbanding UNSCOM and setting up UNMOVIC – the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission – and setting out a timetable for action and for the eventual lifting of sanctions should Iraq choose to cooperate.
Unfortunately the Iraqi regime chose not to comply with the resolution and effectively refused to cooperate with the UN Commission.
So what is the situation in Iraq at the present time? As you will all probably recall, the UK Government produced a dossier on the day of the emergency debate in the House of Commons last month – a debate which I spoke in. The dossier sets out the assessment of the UK intelligence agencies of Iraq’s activities since the UN teams left in 1998 – producing chemical and biological weapons, working to develop a nuclear weapon, and extending the range of its ballistic missiles.
How we get to the crisis of today?
There is no doubt in my mind that the atrocities of 11 September last year have been a factor in influencing the US position on Iraq. Not because there is any serious evidence of a link between Iraq and those terrible events, but because they mark a watershed in the thinking of the US leadership and probably of a significant proportion of the US population.
Those atrocities certainly triggered the far greater importance given to pre-emption in US military doctrine. Pre-emption means attacking a perceived threat before it can act against you, and it was given great prominence in the new US military strategy document published last month.
We have seen an escalation of tension throughout the last year. The situation is now a fast moving one. George W Bush has challenged the UN to resolve the situation, still threatening to deal with it unilaterally if the UN fails. And international pressure and the threat of military action have prompted Iraq to say that UN weapons inspections will be allowed to resume.
All eyes are now on New York, to see whether a Resolution can be found that can satisfy all sides at the UN Security Council.
So that’s 57 years of history. What should happen next?
In the emergency debate in the House of Commons last month, there was agreement right across the House that the best solution to this crisis would be the swift reintroduction of inspectors to Iraq and the total dismantling of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction programmes.
I should mention that I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister say in that debate that the purpose of UK policy is not regime change but disarmament. This is important. Regime change in Iraq is the explicit objective of the United States. I do not agree with this. While the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule may well be a good thing, I do not believe that it is legitimate for one state simply to decide that it is going to change the regime of another.
I was very disturbed over the summer by the apparent disregard of the United States for the international community and for the role of the UN. Some of the statements from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in particular provoked great concern.
I am particularly worried about the impact that a unilateral attack by the United States might have on the stability of the Middle East, and on the coalition against international terrorism that has been pieced together since 11 September last year.
That is why it is so important that the matter has been put to the UN. This is crucial, for if war is to be averted, it is through the UN that that will happen – through the strict implementation of UN resolutions. As I see it, this alone will keep the US from launching military action.
The UN was created to deal with matters like Iraq, and the UN must deliver. The challenge to the British Government is to do everything it can to help the UN resolve this crisis, through the effective enforcement of resolutions passed by the UN Security Council.
But if all else fails, what then? There was an overwhelming consensus in the debate last month certainly among Labour MPs that any use of force to achieve the objectives must be authorised by the United Nations Security Council.
But no-one in their right mind would want war. As I said earlier, war means dead and injured people – service people and civilians. And war could mean throwing a lighted match into the tinder-box that is the Middle East.
It remains my sincere hope that this situation will be resolved by the strict enforcement of UN resolutions, and without fresh military action against Iraq.