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Passionate Opposition

Yesterday, in a disappointing development, the British parliament approved
by 493-25 a resolution supporting the government's threat of force against
Iraq. Despite this, there was one speech that stood out for its passion
and understanding of history. It was the speech of Tony Benn, Labour MP
for Chesterfield. It is worth reading and quoting. I reproduce it here in


House of Commons, February 17, 1998

5.26 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): If this debate is to make sense, we should
understand the area of total agreement and where differences of opinion

First, no one in the House supports the regime of Saddam Hussein, who is a
brutal dictator. I shall come to the support he has had from the west, but
he is a brutal dictator and nobody in the House defends him. Secondly, no
one in the House can defend for one moment the denial by the Iraqi
Government of the implementation of the Security Council resolution which
said that there should be inspections. The third issue on which there is
major agreement, but little understanding yet, is the sudden realisation
of the horror of modern chemical and biological weapons, which do not
depend on enormous amounts of hardware--previously only available to a
superpower--but which almost anybody, perhaps even a terrorist group,
could deliver. 

The disagreement is on how we deal with the matter. The former Prime
Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)--whose speech
was listened to with great attention--was talking about a preventive war.
I shall read Hansard carefully, but he talked about a preventive war.
There is no provision in the UN charter for a preventive war. If we are
realistic--we must not fool ourselves--that huge American fleet of 30
ships and 1,000 aircraft is not in the Gulf waiting to be withdrawn when
Saddam makes a friendly noise
to Kofi Annan. The fleet has been sent there to be used, and the House
would be deceiving itself if it thought that any so-called "diplomatic
initiatives" would avert its use. 

This is a unique debate as far as I am concerned. I have sat here with the
right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) through four
wars--the Korean war, the Suez war, the Falklands war and the first Gulf
war. I cannot remember an occasion when any Government asked the House to
authorise, in a resolution, action which could lead to force. 

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Will my right hon. Friend give way? 

Mr. Benn: No. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to develop a case

The reason is that the right to go to war is a prerogative power. The
Government are inviting the House--I understand why--to share their
responsibility for the use of force, knowing that force will be used
within a week or two. 

We are not starting afresh. I opposed the Gulf war. We should have asked
why Saddam got into Kuwait and why he was not stopped. We had the war. The
equivalent of seven and a half Hiroshima bombs was dropped on the people
of Iraq--the biggest bombardment since the second world war. Some 200,000
Iraqis died. Depleted uranium bullets were used. I have had two or three
letters from Gulf war veterans in a mass of correspondence in the past
week, one of whom has offered to be a human shield in Iraq because he
feels that he was betrayed by the British Government and does not want the
Iraqi people to suffer again. 

All the evidence confirms my view that sanctions are another instrument of
mass destruction. They destroy people's lives, denying them the food and
medicines that they need. It is no good saying that Saddam took the money
for his palaces. If that is the case, why does the United Nations
Children's Fund now say that there are 1 million children in Iraq
starving, along with 500,000 who have died. 

Bombing the water supply and the sewerage plants is like using chemical
weapons, because the disease that spreads from that bombing contributes to
in the country. And, at the end of all that, Saddam is stronger than he
was at the beginning. Nobody denies that. People ask why we have to go
back seven years later. It is because the previous policy inevitably made
him stronger. We know that when a country is attacked, leaders wave their
fists and say, "We
will never give way." It happened in Britain, it happens when we are
dealing with bombings from Ireland--it happens all the time. Are we such
fools that we think that if we bomb other people they will crumble,
whereas when they bomb us it will stiffen our resolve? The House ought to
study its own history. 

The Government's motion would not be carried at the Security Council. I
asked the Foreign Secretary about that. Why is he asking us to pass a
resolution that he could not get through the Security Council? On the
basis of his speech, the Russians and the Chinese would not vote for the
use of force. Why involve the House of Commons in an act that runs counter
to what the Security Council would accept? 

Several hon. Members rose-- 

Mr. Benn: I have very little time. I want to develop my argument. There
are many others who want to speak. 
I hope that the House will listen to me. I know that my view is not the
majority view in the House, although it may be outside this place. 

I regret that I shall vote against the Government motion. The first
victims of the bombing that I believe will be launched within a fortnight
will be innocent
people, many, if not most, of whom would like Saddam to be removed. The
former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon, talked about
collateral damage. The military men are clever. They talk not about
hydrogen bombs but about deterrence. They talk not about people but about
collateral damage. They talk not about power stations and sewerage plants
but about assets. The reality is that innocent people will be killed if
the House votes tonight--as it manifestly will--to give the Government the
authority for military action. 

The bombing would also breach the United Nations charter. I do not want to
argue on legal terms. If the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife
(Mr. Campbell) has read articles 41 and 42, he will know that the charter
says that military action can only be decided on by the Security Council
and conducted
under the military staffs committee. That procedure has not been followed
and cannot be followed because the five permanent members have to agree.
Even for the Korean war, the United States had to go to the general
assembly to get authority because Russia was absent. That was held to be a
breach, but at least an overwhelming majority was obtained. 

Has there been any negotiation or diplomatic effort? Why has the Foreign
Secretary not been in Baghdad, like the French Foreign Minister, the
Turkish Foreign Minister and the Russian Foreign Minister? The time that
the Government said that they wanted for negotiation has been used to
prepare public opinion for war and to build up their military position in
the Gulf. 

Saddam will be strengthened again. Or he may be killed. I read today that
the security forces--who are described as terrorists in other
countries--have tried to kill Saddam. I should not be surprised if they

This second action does not enjoy support from elsewhere. There is no
support from Iraq's neighbours. If what the Foreign Secretary says about
the threat to the neighbours is true, why is Iran against, why is Jordan
against, why is Saudi Arabia against, why is Turkey against? Where is that
great support? There is
no support from the opposition groups inside Iraq. The Kurds, the Shi'ites
and the communists hate Saddam, but they do not want the bombing. The Pope
is against it, along with 10 bishops, two cardinals, Boutros Boutros-Ghali
and Perez de Cuellar. The Foreign Secretary clothes himself with the
garment of the
world community, but he does not have that support. We are talking about
an Anglo-American preventive war. It has been planned and we are asked to
authorise it in advance. 

The House is clear about its view of history, but it does not say much
about the history of the areas with which we are dealing. The borders of
Kuwait and Iraq, which then became sacrosanct, were drawn by the British
after the end of the Ottoman empire. We used chemical weapons against the
Iraqis in the 1930s. Air Chief Marshal Harris, who later flattened
Dresden, was instructed to drop chemical weapons. 

When Saddam came to power, he was a hero of the west. The Americans used
him against Iran because they hated Khomeini, who was then the figure to
be removed. 

17 Feb 1998 : Column 929

They armed Saddam, used him and sent him anthrax. I am not anxious to make
a party political point, because there is not much difference between the
two sides on this, but, as the Scott report revealed, the previous
Government allowed him to be armed. I had three hours with Saddam in 1990.
I got the hostages
out, which made it worth going. He felt betrayed by the United States,
because the American ambassador in Baghdad had said to him, "If you go
into Kuwait, we will treat it as an Arab matter." That is part of the
history that they know, even if we do not know it here. 

In 1958, 40 years ago, Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary and later the
Speaker, told Foster Dulles that Britain would make Kuwait a Crown colony.
Foster Dulles said, "What a very good idea." We may not know that history,
but in the middle east it is known. 

The Conservatives have tabled an amendment asking about the objectives.
That is an important issue. There is no UN resolution saying that Saddam
must be toppled.It is not clear that the Government know what their
objectives are. They will probably be told from Washington. Do they
imagine that if we bomb Saddam for two weeks, he will say, "Oh, by the
way, do come in and inspect."? The plan is misconceived. 

Some hon. Members--even Opposition Members--have pointed out the double
standard. I am not trying to equate Israel with Iraq, but on 8 June 1981,
bombed a nuclear reactor near Baghdad. What action did either party take
on that? Israel is in breach of UN resolutions and has instruments of mass
destruction. Mordechai Vanunu would not boast about Israeli freedom.
Turkey breached UN resolutions by going into northern Cyprus. It has also
invaded northern Iraq and has instruments of mass destruction. Lawyers
should know better than anyone else that it does not matter whether we are
with a criminal thug or an ordinary lawbreaker--if the law is to apply, it
must apply to all. Governments of both major parties have failed in that. 

Prediction is difficult and dangerous, but I fear that the situation could
end in a tragedy for the American and British Governments. Suez and
Vietnam are not
far from the minds of anyone with a sense of history. I recall what
happened to Sir Anthony Eden. I heard him announce the ceasefire and saw
him go on
holiday to Goldeneye in Jamaica. He came back to be replaced. I am not
saying that that will happen in this case, but does anyone think that the
House is in a
position to piggy-back on American power in the middle east? What happens
if Iraq breaks up? If the Kurds are free, they will demand Kurdistan and
destabilise Turkey. Anything could happen. We are sitting here as if we
still had an empire--only, fortunately, we have a bigger brother with more
weapons than us. 

The British Government have everything at their disposal. They are
permanent members of the Security Council and have the European Union
presidency for
six months. Where is that leadership in Europe which we were promised? It
just disappeared. We are also, of course, members of the Commonwealth, in
which there are great anxieties. We have thrown away our influence, which
could have been used for moderation. 

The amendment that I and others have tabled argues that the United Nations
Security Council should decide the nature of what Kofi Annan brings back
from Baghdad and whether force is to be used. Inspections and sanctions go
side by side. As I said, sanctions are brutal for innocent 
people. Then there is the real question: when will the world come to terms
with the fact that chemical weapons are available to anybody? If there is
an answer to that, it must involve the most meticulous observation of
international law, which I feel we are abandoning. 

War is easy to talk about; there are not many people left of the
generation which remembers it. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and
Sidcup served with
distinction in the last war. I never killed anyone but I wore uniform. I
was in London during the blitz in 1940, living where the Millbank tower
now stands,
where I was born. Some different ideas have come in there since. Every
night, I went to the shelter in Thames house. Every morning, I saw
burning. Five hundred people were killed in Westminster one night by a
land mine. It was terrifying. Are not Arabs and Iraqis terrified? Do not
Arab and
Iraqi women weep when their children die? Does not bombing strengthen
their determination? What fools we are to live as if war is a computer
game for our children or just an interesting little Channel 4 news item. 

Every Member of Parliament who votes for the Government motion will be
consciously and deliberately accepting responsibility for the deaths of
innocent people if the war begins, as I fear it will. That decision isfor
every hon. Member to take. In my parliamentary experience, this an unique
debate. We are being
asked to share responsibility for a decision that we will not really be
taking but which will have consequences for people who have no part to
play in the brutality of the regime with which we are dealing. 

On 24 October 1945--the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup will
remember--the United Nations charter was passed. The words of that charter
are etched on my mind and move me even as I think of them. It says: 

       "We the peoples of the United Nations determined 
        to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice
        in our life-time has brought untold sorrow to mankind". 

That was that generation's pledge to this generation, and it would be the
greatest betrayal of all if we voted to abandon the charter, take
unilateral action and
pretend that we were doing so in the name of the international community.
I shall vote against the motion for the reasons that I have given. 

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