Wednesday, 24 March 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Shatter: asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the advice, if any, given by the Government to the FAI concerning the European championship under 21 match against Macedonia scheduled to take place on 26 March 1999 in Tetevo and the European championship match against Macedonia scheduled to take place in Skopje on 27 March 1999; the Government's view on the safety of Ireland's teams and supporters travelling to Macedonia; the Government's view on whether the matches should be postponed or played in a neutral venue; and the contact, if any, the Government has had with UEFA.
Proinsias De Rossa: asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps, if any, being taken to ensure the safety of Irish citizens in Yugoslavia in view of the threat of imminent NATO bombing; if all Irish personnel serving as OSCE observers in Kosovo have been withdrawn; the Government's view on whether the proposed NATO action is justified; the steps, if any, the Government will take to try to avoid bloodshed by securing a peaceful settlement to the problem of Kosovo; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Defence (Mr. M. Smith): Beidh a fhios ag an Teach go bhfuil an Aire Gnóthaí Eachtracha thar lear agus tá mise anseo in a ionad. The House will be aware that the Minister for Foreign Affairs is abroad on Government business. I am here on his behalf.
With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I wish to answer all the Private Notice Questions together. The crisis in Kosovo is once again at a most acute stage. The Government is deeply disappointed that the most extensive and intensive efforts by the international community to have the parties to the conflict there, the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians, reach agreement through the negotiations, which started in Rambouillet in February and which were resumed in Paris this month, did not succeed.
As the House will be aware, the talks were adjourned after the Kosovar side signed the text of the agreement. The Paris meeting can be resumed when the Serb side is ready to sign. The Government is also disappointed that the efforts of the US envoy, Mr. Holbrooke, did not succeed in persuading President Milosevic to change his mind and sign the agreement. It has to be emphasised that the option of signing still remains open to President Milosevic. Should President Milosevic continue to refuse to sign, then we are clearly entering a new and dangerous phase of the crisis.
As the House will be aware, the Belgrade authorities used the period between Rambouillet and the resumption in Paris not for the purpose of addressing the agreement text but instead to create a major build-up of their security forces, both within Kosovo and on its borders. This was a major breach of Security Council Resolution 1199 of last September which, inter alia, had called for a withdrawal of such forces to pre-crisis levels.
Since the weekend we have seen the tragic results of the operations of such forces, with a major new flow of refugees and displaced persons and the return of a possible humanitarian catastrophe. The impact of this new flow of refugees and displaced persons on the earlier one of last  summer and autumn, which had only been remedied in its most acute aspects, should not be underestimated in terms of its effects throughout Kosovo and on the strained facilities and capacities of the adjoining countries. Against this background the major priority now must be to ensure that this Serb aggression against the Kosovo Albanian population is not allowed to continue and that a humanitarian catastrophe be avoided.
The gravity of the situation in Kosovo was discussed yesterday by the Taoiseach when he met the Russian Prime Minister, Mr. Primakov. Today the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Andrews, are attending the European Council in Berlin and the Taoiseach will brief his colleagues on his discussions with Mr. Primakov. In addition, the EU members of the Contact Group will be participating in the extensive discussions taking place in Berlin. In accordance with established practice, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs will report to the House on the outcome of the Berlin discussions.
I would hope that the House could be in agreement today on the objectives of the international community in regard to the situation and what has to be done. Let me specify the objectives. The means to achieve a peaceful solution to this problem are available through the interim agreement which was so painstakingly worked on by international mediators and signed by the Kosovar Albanian delegation. Such signature was only arrived at after major compromise on their side, in terms of postponing their goal of independence and the disarming of the Kosovo Liberation Army. It is now up to the Serb side to compromise in similar fashion and in the realisation of the benefits which this agreement could provide for them in terms of safeguarding the integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and ensuring the future of the Serb minority in Kosovo.
Hard experience from Bosnia teaches us that agreements have not only to be signed but also implemented in that part of the world. The text of the agreement fully covered implementation measures, and they too would have to be addressed.
The terms and demands of Security Council Resolution 1199 of 23 September are also valid and still apply in full. The demands which are most relevant and immediate today are that the Belgrade authorities end the use of excessive and disproportionate force in Kosovo and that they withdraw their army and special police forces to pre-crisis levels.
As we speak, the Government is aware of the threat of imminent air strikes by NATO. The deployment of maximum pressure has avoided in the past the need to carry out such enforcement actions. The Government sincerely hopes that this can be averted even at this very late stage. In the meantime we are addressing a hypothetical situation and it would not be appropriate to speculate further on it. I can assure the House, however, that the Government is fully aware of  the gravity of the situation and developments are being monitored as closely as possible.
For some time the Department has advised against travel to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This advice still holds. We are not aware of any Irish citizens in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia who need further advice or assistance on this matter.
In relation to the question of the European Cup match scheduled to take place in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Government is advising against travel to a number of Balkan states, including the FYROM, and the FAI is aware of this. The fact that the match has been postponed means that these difficulties can be avoided. Naturally we would have been concerned for the safety of football teams, officials and supporters. The question of how people deal with their air fares clearly does not arise at this stage.
Mr. G. Mitchell: Arising from the Minister's reply, I want to ask specific questions and I would appreciate if the Minister would address each of them in turn. I note that the Secretary General of NATO, Mr. Javier Solana, directed that these NATO bombings take place. Is the Minister satisfied that there is a basis in international law for NATO to carry out the instructions of its Secretary General? It is a specific question and the Minister for Defence will be particularly aware of the implications.
On what principle does the Government base its attitude to these events, particularly in relation to the UN resolutions? What specifically is the Government doing to contribute to a resolution of the conflict on our Continent? What role is the Government taking in that regard?
Mr. M. Smith: One must go back to last summer, when the Serbian authorities intensified their aggression in Kosovo. This resulted in the displacement of up to 300,000 people, homeless and shelterless, and their being driven into the mountains, and the subsequent UN Security Council Resolution 1199 to reduce that aggression, to enter into negotiations and to find a peaceful agreement. The Government has been constantly in touch with the United Nations, through the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in terms  of finding a peaceful solution. Subsequently efforts were made to bring about the agreement and compromise on both sides. We are in constant touch in relation to trying to make sure that agreement could ultimately be signed. The fact is that it has not been signed by one side. The Kosovars have signed it but the Serbs have not, and the aggression and the displacement and making of thousands more homeless continues. There are the questions of human rights and of the right of people to freedom and not to be persecuted by any state.
The Government's position on human rights is absolutely clear. No one has a right to take these freedoms away from any individual in the way that has been suffered by these people. As many as 3,000 people have been killed in the past 12 months and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The question is not a simple one of what is the international law on the question. What are the answers to that sort of persecution? One must find an agreement which brings people around a negotiating table and which can be honoured. Up to now one side has compromised and the other has not. We must continue to work towards a peaceful solution, even at this stage because there is time to pull back and that time should be used.
Mr. Gormley: Does the Minister accept that the NATO operation is illegal and does not have a UN mandate? Is the Minister aware that as far as President Milosevic was concerned, the stumbling block was the participation of NATO? At any stage during the negotiations in Paris, was the idea of a UN peacekeeping force mooted and if so, what was President Milosevic's reaction to that idea? Were the alternatives simply NATO or nothing? Is the Irish Government prepared to push the idea of a UN protectorate? Does the Minister accept that, far from helping the Albanian Kosovars, air strikes could have the opposite effect and that in the absence of ground forces we could witness massacres on a wide scale and perhaps even genocide? Are we playing into the hands of Mr. Milosevic?
A subtle change has taken place in NATO terminology. Is the Minister aware that Serbia was first forced to comply with international agreements for a ceasefire and political autonomy in Kosovo but that the terminology now refers to the aversion of a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo? The Petersberg tasks – Article J7.2 of the Amsterdam Treaty – include not merely humanitarian and peacekeeping missions but also “tasks of combat forces in crisis management  including peace making”. Is the Minister aware that we have signed up to the Amsterdam Treaty of which the Petersberg tasks are part and will Irish troops actively participate in Kosovo as a consequence?
Does the Minister agree that this operation is not about saving Kosovars, it is really about saving NATO? Is the Minister aware of the statement by the US national security adviser, Sandy Berger: “inaction could involve a major cost in credibility, particularly at this time as we approach the NATO summit in celebration of its 50th anniversary”? Is this really about saving the credibility of NATO?
Mr. M. Smith: The Irish people have endorsed the Amsterdam Treaty so I will not debate that matter with Deputy Gormley. Air strikes must be an absolute last resort. It is hoped that the threat of strikes will create a circumstance where agreement can be reached and the strikes averted. The Deputy is right; it would be preferable if a UN mandated intervention was proposed. My advice is that such an action is unlikely and could probably never happen, given the different stances taken by countries who are members of the UN. We must bear in mind that Security Council Resolution 1199 was not adhered to by President Milosevic. The four elements contained in that resolution were ignored. There is no certainty that President Milosevic would accept a mandate from the United Nations when he did not adhere to one which required him to do much less and continued his aggression.
Mr. Shatter: Will the Minister clarify and confirm that it is the Government's view that if the threatened air strikes do not result in the agreement negotiated in Paris being signed, it is essential that the action proposed by NATO be taken to protect Kosovars from the barbarism of the Serb army? Does the Minister acknowledge that it is important that we do not see in Kosovo a repetition of what took place in Srebrenica? In the absence of NATO taking action and of the agreement being signed, what alternative does the Government propose to tackle the problem which confronts us in the region?
The football match has been postponed and its importance pales into insignificance compared with the tragedy befalling the area. It seems the Minister was not aware that the match was postponed until I informed him of this in the House. When was the FAI made aware by the Government of its view that neither the teams nor supporters should travel? Was it only when the Tánaiste said this in the House today that Aer Lingus informed the FAI that it would not fly to Macedonia? Is it as a result of Aer Lingus so informing the FAI that the FAI informed UEFA and the match was postponed? If that question had not been put to the Tánaiste and she had not made that comment, the two Irish teams and Irish supporters would be at risk of being flown into a potentially serious war zone. Why was the  Government's view on this issue not clearly made publicly known at the start of this week or even yesterday by the Taoiseach when he was given the opportunity to make his view known and bring an end to the uncertainty?
Mr. M. Smith: The difficulties have been discussed in the media for some time. I will check the details and let the Deputy know when contact was made with the FAI. I do not have that information available to me now.
Mr. M. Smith: The first part of Deputy Shatter's question related to alternative proposals that might be on hand to solve the crisis. The opportunity will be taken by the Taoiseach and his colleagues in Berlin to examine every possibility. Nobody in this House or anywhere else wants to see air strikes carried out and every effort will be  made to determine the extent to which negotiations can be resumed to ensure they can be avoided.
Proinsias De Rossa: The Minister is right in that we do not have control over this, but does he accept we have the freedom to express an opinion on it? Is it the Minister's opinion, or that of the Government, that the bombing is justified? Is it legal? How many lives is it expected will be lost, and how many will be saved, as a result of the bombing?
Proinsias De Rossa: I am sure the Minister would be happy to end Private Notice Questions having repeated this mantra about all the efforts being made. I have asked him specific questions about the Government's attitude.
Mr. M. Smith: The Government position was made clear in my contribution earlier. In circumstances where there is such aggression and tragic displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, with all the consequences of that, an effort is continuing to try to get an agreement which one side is prepared to support while the other has an opportunity to so do to avoid the type of catastrophe the Deputy mentioned. I, too, believe air strikes would be a catastrophe, but there is still time to avoid that. Let us hope there is enough common sense in the world to bring about a solution. I will not say here this afternoon what will happen if air strikes are carried out, but God help us if they are. Every moment in the intervening time must be used to ensure they do not happen and that opportunity rests with the people who have the responsibility for this, not with me.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): Will the Minister explain what he means when he invites the Dáil to be in agreement on the objectives of the international community in regard to the situation and  what has to be done? The Minister spoke in terms of safeguarding the integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Does the Government oppose the demand of the people of Kosovo for self-determination and an independent state, and does it support some of the leading NATO countries in denying that legitimate demand? What does the Minister mean when he invites the Dáil to support the end of the use of excessive and disproportionate force by the Belgrade authorities in Kosovo and to withdraw their army and special police forces to pre-crisis levels? Is the Government in agreement with some level of force against the people of Kosovo by the Milosevic regime? Is the Minister not aware that the pre-crisis levels of the Serbian army and police were highly repressive of the people of Kosovo? Does he support the right of the people of Kosovo to an independent state? Does he agree this would be the best way for those people to be freed from brutal repression, with the rights of the Serb minority guaranteed? Is the Minister aware that in Serbia, despite the oppressive regime, there is a strong opposition movement to the nationalists and to Milosevic? Will he agree, therefore, that the overthrow of the Milosevic regime by a mass movement of the Serbian people, and the establishment of a genuine democracy, is the only way to create the conditions in the Balkans for the right of all peoples to co-exist in peace? Does he not agree, far from weakening Milosevic, bombing by NATO will strengthen his grip while causing immense suffering to ordinary people in Serbia, as happened in Iraq, and leave the regime intact? Will the Minister outline how that advances the interests of the persecuted people in Kosovo or the innocent people in Serbia?
Mr. M. Smith: We support independence for Kosovo but we take into account that in the Rambouillet agreement the compromise on both sides was to defer the right of the people of Kosovo to independence and, at the same time, have a degree of autonomy which they were prepared to accept but which Milosevic was not. The first part of my contribution this afternoon referred to a peaceful solution to the problem, and I agree with the Deputy that the strengthening of democracy would be one of those vehicles. The words used here are identical to the mandate from the UN Security Council Resolution 1199 to return the forces to their pre-crisis level, bearing in mind that there is aggression on both sides.
Mr. G. Mitchell: I am baffled as to the reason the Minister has not answered the five questions I put to him. I asked him if there is a lawful basis for these acts? What are the alternatives in the view of the Government? Surely the Minister has discussed these issues at Cabinet. I also asked whether Ireland agrees with majority EU opinion. I do not know whether there is an EU majority opinion on this. I do not know the answer to any of those questions. This would not  be tolerated in any other parliament and it is indicative of how bad matters have become in this House. I will try again. If there is to be an alternative to NATO bombing, presumably at some stage peace enforcement becomes an issue. Given that the Government has done a complete U-turn on Partnership for Peace, are we prepared to become involved in peace enforcement, for example? What consideration has been given to that? Have we been requested for any overflight facility or refuelling or landing facilitates? We still do not know the answer to that question.
Does the Minister agree our whole approach to security and defence issues is not one of a neutral state but of a neutered state? We are like an ostrich with our head in the sand. We pretend these things do not happen and we do not contribute to their solution. Does the Minister agree that not only are we like an ostrich but we are like a neutered one and are not taking our responsibilities seriously in these matters? A crisis like the one in Srebenica can happen a dozen times over but this country will sit on its hands without a thought out policy. Will the Minister answer the questions put to him in a civilised way before he raises the temperature of this House unnecessarily on this most important issue?
Mr. M. Smith: For 40 years Irish troops have been involved in peacekeeping in 30 different countries. We are very proud of our record and have not been standing idly by in the way the Deputy suggested. We will continue in this and we have troops in parts of the world where their lives have been put at risk.
Mr. M. Smith: We have been involved in peacemaking as well and will continue to be. We will move our policy forward and take an even greater role as we have the facilities and resources to do so under any international agreement involving  the United Nations. As far as this crisis is concerned, there are matters which are totally outside our control. We work within the United Nations and have sought to get agreement. There is still time to reach agreement and to avoid air strikes. The alternatives to that are being sought by every Government in Europe and their heads tonight. Nobody wants what is being proposed to happen.
We must remember that in Bosnia it was the threat of this type of force which brought about the agreement and 35,000 members of NATO forces are involved in securing and keeping peace in troubled places. The hope here is that the threat of force will ensure this agreement and the verifying mission are put in place and the people who will help to protect and secure a peaceful arrangement among the divided people are brought in. That is the hope; I cannot say anymore.
Proinsias De Rossa: I found the replies of the Minister very unsatisfactory in that he is not addressing the questions asked. Does the Government believe that if NATO bombs Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo tonight or tomorrow night that it is acting within international law? I would like a simple answer and am not asking the Minister to justify it.
Arising from a remark the Minister made that he would prefer a peaceful resolution, is he pressing for a deferral of the threatened bombing, particularly in view of the fact that the Russian Prime Minister, who was on a visit to Ireland yesterday and who was met by the Taoiseach, indicated that the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo defied commonsense and that all diplomatic and political options had not yet been tried? Surely, it is a view which should at least be considered by the Government?
Mr. M. Smith: I already told the House the Taoiseach would report on his meeting with Mr. Primakov to the EU leaders this afternoon. Clearly, he will indicate the message transmitted to him by the Russian Premier.
Mr. M. Smith: I cannot answer for the Government in this context because it is an ongoing crisis  but everybody should exhaust the time available to ensure the bombing does not take place. I am unable to answer the question about international law. I understand the Deputy asked a question about the right to bomb under international law.
Proinsias De Rossa: If this Minister is not in a position to answer on behalf of the Government, surely he should withdraw and allow somebody who will and has the authority to answer questions come into the House?
Mr. Shatter: In the context of the stream of refugees leaving Kosovo, what arrangements have been made to provide humanitarian aid to refugees leaving Kosovo in fear of the Serbian onslaught? Has the European Union, as a group, made arrangements or is it putting in place arrangements to be of assistance to refugees? What is the nature of this country's contribution in that regard?
Mr. M. Smith: Those are matters which are under constant review in the Department of Foreign Affairs. As the Deputy will know, we have always been able to assist and provide as much financial and physical resources as we can in such circumstances. The hope is that this matter will not be further aggravated but we will put in place any assistance we can afford.
Mr. Gormley: Is the Minister aware he stated in the House that the Government supports the independence of Kosovo? Is he further aware that this position is at variance with NATO and EU member states which simply support political autonomy? Will he again state that the Government supports independence for Kosovo? I ask the Minister to reply either “yes” or “no”.
Is the Minister assisting NATO in its operations by providing facilities such as Shannon as a stop over? Was the UN option, the idea of a UN protectorate, put to Mr. Milosevic? I share Deputy Mitchell's frustration in that I also want to know if Irish troops will be deployed in Kosovo? Does that possibility exists under the Petersberg tasks because as I read it, it does?
Mr. M. Smith: The only way Irish troops will be deployed in Kosovo is on the basis of the verification mission which was proposed and which has so far been rejected. I made my position absolutely clear and said I support Kosovan independence.
Mr. M. Smith: As to whether the UN proposal was put on the table, as I indicated to the Deputy, it was not possible to get UN agreement. The measure of agreement reached in the UN on the Security Council resolution was not accepted by President Milosevic.
Proinsias De Rossa: That position was unanimously agreed by the European Union. In light of that, has the European Union a common position on the current proposed action by NATO? Have there been bilateral meetings between the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his counterparts in other member states? Does he believe double standards are being pursued in this area, given that there are areas of the world where millions have died, and even today many are being slaughtered? I refer to Indonesia, East Timor, the Kurds in Turkey and the Great Lakes region where millions have died over the past ten years. NATO is planning to bomb a country in Europe when those other regions are literally bleeding to death and we have no proposals from anybody that these areas should be bombed into submission or into peaceful negotiations?
Mr. M. Smith: It would be unusual for people in Europe to take the position that because one is unable to solve all the problems in different parts of the world one should not try to do whatever one can to solve this crisis. We must bear in mind that the threat of force brought about the circumstances in which the Dayton Agreement could be honoured in Bosnia-Herzegovina where  people's lives are beginning to have some semblance of normality. It was the threat of force that achieved that; nothing else was able to achieve it. Like the Deputy, I regret that those circumstances arise. In this instance it is hoped that the threat of force will create the same result. There is still time for it to happen and that should also be the hope of the House.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): Does the Minister agree the powers that control NATO are the last people in whom the people of the Balkans can put their trust? Virtually all those powers have been guilty of imperialist conquest in the past. Does the Minister agree the cynicism of the Milosevic regime is mirrored by the cynicism of those imperial powers within NATO? For example, NATO ignores the democratic rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey, which is an important member of NATO, while professing to stand for democratic rights in the Balkans. While it is true that Milosevic will hardly tremble at the thought of a debate in this Chamber about the horrors in the Balkans, nevertheless the Irish people can play an important role by taking an independent stand on this crisis and by saying clearly that the crude and barbaric method of bombing is not the way to defeat Milosevic.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): The way to take out Milosevic is not through bombing. That method failed in Iraq, but it caused enormous suffering among the ordinary people. Will he agree the alternative is for the people of Kosovo and the supporters of genuine democracy within Serbia – which, if given expression and support, is a very strong force – to link up on the basis of mutual respect for self-determination of all people for people's rights? Will he agree the solution lies in that direction rather than in the crude method of blindly dropping bombs not knowing where they will land and killing many innocent people when such bombing is almost guaranteed not to affect the dictatorship of Milosevic?
Mr. M. Smith: No Member is advocating bombing. The Government has attempted to ensure that can be avoided by agreement being reached by the two sides. This crisis did not happened overnight. There has been a crisis there for a considerable time. People have suffered enormously, many have been displaced, many have no shelter, thousands have been killed and negotiations have continued day after day, month after month. A compromise was reached, which was agreeable to one side surrendering its right to independence for the time being, but it was not accepted by the other side.
Mr. M. Smith: It is not as if we have reached this stage without constant diplomatic and negotiating efforts being made through agreement outside of air strikes. As I said in reply to an earlier question, it took the threat of air strikes to bring about the agreement being honoured in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. G. Mitchell: This is my third time to ask the Minister if the Government has been asked for fly-over, landing, refuelling or any other facilities by those involved. Will he agree the Government believes the diplomatic route has been exhausted and that it does not know whether it is in favour or against bombing, but it is in favour of the threat of bombing? Is that a fair assessment of its position? I cannot make anything else out of what the Minister said.
Mr. M. Smith: This matter is being put forward as being extraordinarily simple and as if there should be a simple “yes” or “no” answer to many of these questions. Everyone who wants to hear the truth knows we are dealing with an extraordinarily complicated and difficult historical problem and that considerable effort has been made by all sides to negotiate an agreement and there is still time for that to happen. If that were to happen, there is still time to defer bombing and for more time to be given.
Mr. M. Smith: The Deputy can rely on the Taoiseach when he is negotiating for the Irish Government, as he is today, to use all his powers of persuasion to get the best possible answer to these questions.
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