House of Commons
Tuesday 23 march 1999
STATEMENT ON KOSOVO BY THE PRIME MINISTER, TONY BLAIR
Madam Speaker, with your permission I will make a statement on Kosovo.
As I speak, it is still unclear what the outcome of Mr Holbrookes talks in Belgrade will be, but there is little cause to be optimistic.
On the assumption they produce no change in President Milosevics position and the repression in Kosovo by Serb forces continues, Britain stands ready with our NATO allies to take military action.
We do so for very clear reasons. We do so primarily to avert what would otherwise be a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo.
Let me give the House an indication of the scale of what is happening: a quarter of a million Kosovars, more than 10 per cent of the population, are now homeless as a result of repression by Serb forces. 65,000 people have been forced from their homes in the last month, and no less than 25,000 in the four days since peace talks broke down. Only yesterday, 5,000 people in the Srbica area were forcibly evicted from their villages.
Much of the Drenica region of northern Kosovo is being cleared of ethnic Albanians. Every single village the UNHCR observers could see in the Glogovac and Srbica region yesterday were on fire. Families are being uprooted and driven from their homes. There are reports of masked irregulars separating out the men: we dont know what has happened to them. The House will recall that at Srebrenica, they were killed.
Since last summer 2000 people have died. Without the international verification force, there is no doubt the numbers would have been vastly higher.
We act also because we know from bitter experience throughout this century, most recently in Bosnia, that instability and civil war in one part of the Balkans inevitably spills over into the whole of it, and affects the rest of Europe too. Let me remind the House. There are now over 1 million refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the EU.
If Kosovo was left to the mercy of Serbian repression, there is not merely a risk but a probability of re-igniting unrest in Albania; Macedonia de-stabilised; almost certain knock-on effects in Bosnia; and further tension between Greece and Turkey.
There are strategic interests for the whole of Europe at stake. We cannot contemplate, on the doorstep of the EU, a disintegration into chaos and disorder.
And thirdly Madam Speaker, we have made a very plain promise to the Kosovar people. Thousands of them returned to their homes as a result of the ceasefire we negotiated last October. We have said to them and to Mr Milosevic we would not tolerate the brutal suppression of the civilian population. After the massacre at Racak, these threats to Milosevic were repeated. To walk away now would not merely destroy NATOs credibility, more importantly it would be a breach of faith with thousands of innocent civilians. whose only desire is to live in peace and who took us at our word.
I say this to the British people. There is a heavy responsibility on a government when putting our forces into battle, to justify such action. I warn: the potential consequences of military action are serious, both for NATO forces and the people in the region. Their suffering cannot be ended overnight. But in my judgement the consequences of not acting are more serious still for human life and for peace in the long term.
We must act: to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe, from death, barbarism and ethnic cleansing by a brutal dictatorship; to save the stability of the Balkan region, where we know chaos can engulf all of Europe. We have no alternative but to act and act we will, unless Milosevic even now chooses the path of peace.
Let me recap briefly on the last few months.
Last October, NATO threatened to use force to secure Milosevics agreement to a cease-fire and an end to the repression that was then in hand. This was successful - at least for a while. Diplomatic efforts, backed by NATOs threat, led to the creation of the 1500 strong Kosovo Verification Mission. A NATO extraction force was established in neighbouring Macedonia in case the monitors got into difficulty.
At the same time, Milosevic gave an undertaking to the US envoy Mr Holbrooke that he would withdraw Serb forces so that their numbers returned to the level before February 1998 roughly 10,000 internal security troops and 12,000 Yugoslav army troops. Milosevic never fulfilled that commitment, indeed the numbers have gone up. We believe there are some 16,000 internal security and 20,000 Yugoslav army troops now in Kosovo, with a further 8,000 army reinforcements poised just over the border.
In January, NATO warned Milosevic that it would respond if he failed to come into compliance with the October agreements: if the repression continued; and if he frustrated the peace process. Milosevic has failed to meet any of these requirements.
Even then, intense diplomatic efforts have been under way. My Rt Hon Friend the Foreign Secretary, and his French colleague Mr Vedrine, have co-chaired the peace talks in France. There is an agreement now on the table.
Autonomy for Kosovo would be guaranteed, with a democratically-elected Assembly, accountable institutions and locally controlled police forces. After three years Kosovos status would be reviewed.
The rights of all its inhabitants including Serbs would be protected, regardless of their ethnic background.
And the awful conflict that has been a blight on the lives of its peoples could come to an end.
The Kosovo Albanians have signed the peace agreement.
The Serbs have not. They have reneged on the commitments they made on the political texts at Rambouillet. And they refuse to allow a peace-keeping force in Kosovo under NATO command to underpin implementation.
It takes two sides to make peace. So far only one side has shown itself willing to make the commitment. It was Milosevic who stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989. It is Milosevic who is now refusing to tackle a political problem by political means.
NATO action would be in the form of air strikes. It will involve many NATO countries. It has the full support of NATO.
It will have as its minimum objective to curb continued Serbian repression in Kosovo in order to avert a humanitarian disaster. It would therefore target the military capability of the Serb dictatorship. To avoid such action, Milosevic must do what he promised to do last October. End the repression; withdraw his troops to barracks; get them down to the levels agreed; and withdraw from Kosovo the tanks, heavy artillery and other weapons he brought into Kosovo early last year.
He must agree to the proposals set out in the Rambouillet Accords, including a NATO led ground force.
Any attack by Serbian forces against NATO personnel engaged in peace-keeping missions elsewhere in the region would be completely unjustified and would be met with a swift and severe response in self-defence. President Milosevic should be in no doubt about our determination to protect our forces and to deal appropriately with any threats to them.
Mr Holbrooke has made the position of the international community crystal clear to Milosevic. There can be no doubt about what is at stake. The choice is now his.
Milosevic can choose peace for the peoples of Kosovo and an end to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavias isolation in Europe.
Or he can choose continued conflict and the serious consequences that would follow.
I hope the House will join with me in urging President Milosevic to choose the path of peace; and support NATO and the international community in action should he fail to do so.
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