BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 11.11.01

Interview: JACK STRAW MP, Foreign Secretary from the United Nations in New York.

Why do the Government plan to seek a derogation from the European Convention of Human Rights to allow detention without trial of terrorist suspects? And where does the war against terrorism go from here?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: So a lot happening on the battlefield but no one suggests this is all going to be over very soon, there may be a long way to go yet, and that means the diplomats have a job to do. President Bush has been in New York this weekend talking to the United Nations, trying to build support for the War in Afghanistan. Other world leaders are there too, our own Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, will be making a speech to the United Nations in a few hours' time. I spoke to him late last night and I asked him about where the war goes from here - might Iraq be the next target? But I began with the story that had just broken last night, the so-called State of Emergency that's going to be introduced tomorrow. I asked Mr Straw, if it was really needed, unless of course there is new evidence of plans to attack us here in Britain. JACK STRAW: There's no state of emergency being announced tomorrow, what is happening was actually announced by David Blunkett a couple of weeks ago when he made his statement about new measures to counter the new terrorist threat and what he announced and will go before Parliament I think next week, is plans to derogate from the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights, under the convention itself, so as to permit in very limited circumstances the detention, yes without trial, of certain terrorist suspects who cannot be deported because of another part of the Human Rights Act, namely Article 3 which quite properly requires us to have full respect for human life. So there were circumstances when I was Home Secretary, as there are now as David Blunkett is Home Secretary, when you've got someone who needs to be deported but the country to which they should be deported, for example Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban, is such that if they were deported they would be killed or tortured. But we, ourselves, have to protect our own society in respect of those people and that's why these provisions with limited scope and very considerable safe guards are going to be introduced. HUMPHRYS: You say limited scope, but it's still a potential infringement of our civil liberties isn't it? STRAW: No it's not because the European Convention on Human Rights itself represents a balance between one civil liberty and another, including for example the right to life enshrined in Article 1. And what we are saying is that the right to life is above all the most fundamental of principles, you can't have terrorists who on the one hand, for good reasons cannot be deported to their home country because their own lives then would at risk but on the other hand who are putting other people's lives at risk in this country and the convention itself, drawn up in 1951 by some very hard headed jurists and statesmen provides exactly for countries like the United Kingdom now facing the kind of terrorist threat we do, to take this action taken within the convention and within the Human Rights Act not outside it. HUMPHRYS: But let's be clear why it's happening now. Not is it because there is a new threat that you have learned about against us? STRAW: Well if you are asking me is there an intelligence which I am going to disclose against in respect of the United Kingdom now, the answer to that is I'm not going to disclose any. And, however, has the terrorist threat heightened for the United Kingdom for virtually every other country in the civilised world since September 11th, the answer to that is of course yes. And you only have to look at the interview by Osama Bin Laden this morning to show that that is the case. Here is this man trying to go through all kinds of alleged theological hoops to justify attacks on anybody who is not in his favour and he declares that there's only one Islamic country, namely Afghanistan, he also says that he has access to biological and chemical weapons which we believe he does and also to nuclear weapons, we're far from certain that he does there but he makes it very clear that he would wish to use all the weapons at his disposal if he got the chance. That's the terrorist threat, that is what we have to deal with. HUMPHRYS: Let's talk about what's happening, what's been happening in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance clearly a significant victory taking Mazar-e-Sharif but the last time they held that city they behaved absolutely appallingly with terrible brutality, there were massacres and all the rest of it. You can't guarantee that that isn't going to happen again this time can you? STRAW: Well we are conscious of what happened last time and huge effort is being undertaken, particularly by the United States but also by the United Kingdom who are in direct touch through Paul Burn, the Prime Minister's Special Representative, with all the key people in the Northern Alliance to ensure that this indeed does not happen again. The circumstances are really very different from what happened before. This time the whole of the world is watching the Northern Alliance, they know that, they also know that they've only achieved this military success as a result of military assistance by the military coalition, led by the United States in which the United Kingdom is participating and the countries surrounding them, which have traditionally supported the Northern Alliance, particularly Iran and Russia and some of the south central Asian states, they are also and this wasn't the case years ago, profoundly committed to the United Nations' agenda for Afghanistan which is there for there to be a peaceful transition once the military action is over to a broad based representative first of all transitional government and then to a permanent government. HUMPHRYS: Given the assistance that you describe, it's not inconceivable that the Northern Alliance, will sooner or later be able to take Kabul, they would then effectively be in control of the country. Now we've made it perfectly clear, haven't we, that we don't want a Northern Alliance government, we want a broad based government. STRAW: Well, the Northern Alliance is the alliance which has the military capacity on the ground to defeat the Taliban. They need the military assistance of the international coalition led by the United States and which the United Kingdom and others are actively participating, but they are the people who are opposing the Taliban and so they have to be used. But also, I have to say that their representatives, we are in discussion with, are..they are part of the real world, they are not total fanatics like the Taliban. They understand, it's the same point that I would made in respect of Mazar-e-Sharif. They understand acutely that if they want to deliver peace and security to themselves, to their families, to their own ethnic groups, they have to participate actively in a broad based government, that they cannot carry on with the rule which is so dismembered, Afghanistan, which is the winner takes all. But there's this other point, John, the only reason that the winner has been able to take all in the past is because of the partisan support for the Taliban or the Northern Alliance from countries in the region, from Pakistan for the Taliban, from Iran and Russia, for the Northern Alliance. There is now an international consensus between the countries surrounding Afghanistan about the nature of the government in Afghanistan. That it has to be broad based, that it has to be representative and so the circumstances are different, and I am optimistic about the potential political future for Afghanistan once there has been a military defeat of the Taliban. HUMPHRYS: You talk about international consensus but the Russians for instance don't want anything at all to do with the Taliban, don't want any part of them in the government. STRAW: That is not the case. Nobody wishes to see the hardline extremists at the core of the Taliban in any future broad-based government and it's impossible to see circumstances in which that could happen. But when I spoke to Sergei Ivanov, who is the Defence Minister of the Russian Federation only two weeks ago and we discussed this and he said of course there is likely to be a place in any future broad-based government for what he described as the rank and file members of the Taliban. In other words the people who have had to go along with the Taliban, they may have been conscripted into the Taliban army or even into the administration because the only alternative was starvation or a bullet in the back. And so we have to differentiate pretty clearly between as I say between the extremists in the core of the Taliban on the one hand and the Pashtun who happen to have the label of Taliban attached to them at the moment but who would probably, given a free choice, be as pleased to see the back of the Taliban as the rest of us. HUMPHRYS: Ramadan is just about upon us. Some people of course we know want a bombing pause. You've said you had an open mind as to that. Is it more or less likely that there will be a bombing pause now that Mazar-e-Sharif has fallen? STRAW: It's probably less likely because of the military momentum and the need to ensure that this military success is followed up elsewhere and frankly it's in the interests of every single peaceful person in Afghanistan who wants a better future to see this military action not paused but brought to a satisfactory conclusion and for all of us, as we all, who are concerned about the humanitarian situation, the humanitarian solution for people particularly in the north where it's been most acute, is not to have a bombing pause because that would have allowed the Taliban to continue their hold for example on Mazar-e-Sharif, but to liberate Mazar-e-Sharif as now looks as though it's happening, and then to get convoys, train of trucks down from Uzbekistan into that area so it's actually in everybody's interest to ensure that the military campaign is pursued. HUMPHRYS: And yet President Musharraf of Pakistan for one, says to continue with bombing throughout this period would have definite negative effects on the Islamic world. STRAW: Well, I think it would and it wouldn't is the answer. What President Musharraf has also said is that he wants to see as quick an end to the military action as possible but he knows that military action, as someone who is a General himself has to have a satisfactory or should have a satisfactory military conclusion before it can be ended. I mean we've been through all this John, you know the fact that there is as I'm told no writ in the Koran which suggests that military action can't be taken during Ramadan and of course it's notorious that the Taliban themselves always continued military action during that period. HUMPHRYS: It's clearly a great relief to many people that Mazar-e-Sharif has fallen, but let's remember what the point of this war is and that is to get Bin Laden and his organisation. That is the point of it - we haven't done it yet, and that is the point of it. STRAW: Well, the point of the war was set out for example by me in the objectives which I put before the House of Common, set out in many statements by the Prime Minister and over here in the United States by President Bush and Secretary Colin Powell. It has never been the case that the only target of the war was Osama Bin Laden. It was in addition to that to break up the al-Qaeda terrorist network and to prevent those sheltering such terrorist organisations, in this case the Taliban, from operating, and the reason that the focus has moved from Osama Bin Laden through al-Qaeda into the Taliban is because as President Bush and our Prime Minister has said, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have now become indistinguishable. The key is to break up the terrorists' capacity which exits in Afghanistan. Yes, obviously we would wish to see Osama Bin Laden brought to account, it remains to be seen how quickly that would happen. My guess is however, that in the end he will be handed over or found. HUMPHRYS: But of course you have no idea when? TRAW: Well, I can't speculate and that's the nature of military action John. I'm not a clairvoyant. HUMPHRYS: There's a great deal of talk still in Washington, some say increasing talk, about widening the war perhaps, the next target might be Iraq. Now you have said that that must not happen unless there is clear evidence of Iraq's complicity in terrorism. There is evidence, some say of precisely that, the Czechs themselves have talked about confirming a meeting as having taken place between one of the hijackers and Iraqi intelligence, so there does seem to be some evidence growing. STRAW: Well, what I've said and this has been reflected in statements by our Prime Minister and Secretary Colin Powell in the United States is that the only military action on the agenda at the moment is that in Afghanistan. That so far as any other country is concerned including Iraq you only take military action where there is the clearest possible evidence arguing for it, and military action is the only possible option available to achieving a necessary end. We're not in that circumstance at the moment. However what I have been doing earlier today is continuing negotiations with the Russians about a successor resolution to the existing less than satisfactory resolutions in respect of sanctions against Iraq and what we are seeking to do is to ensure there's a more focussed regime which focuses on weapons of mass destruction and material for that and for conventional weapons for use in Iraq whilst making it simpler and easier to get humanitarian exports and things which have entirely a benign purpose through to Iraq. HUMPHRYS: President Bush has said in the United Nations which is where you are at the moment of course, that any regime that sponsors terrorism is going to have to pay the price - the price for that sponsorship. Now, you talk about sanctions, that isn't going to bring Saddam Hussein down, that isn't paying the price is it? STRAW: Well, John, I didn't read that into this, but none of us like the Saddam Hussein regime and it's been deeply corrosive over the whole of the region. What we want to see is action taken to ensure that the Saddam Hussein regime more effectively or at all meets its obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions, but what President Bush is right to say, and it goes back to the issues we were discussing right at the head of this programme that we have to take action against those countries which are harbouring terrorists because unless we do the civilised world is threatened. That's a point which I shall be making tomorrow, Sunday, in my speech to the General Assembly saying that the United Nations was founded fifty-five years ago in the words of the Charter to ensure that the scourge of war does not engulf successive generations. To that we have to add a second limb to ensure that the scourge of terrorism does not engulf future generations, given the obvious and present danger from terrorism and future danger that is out there. HUMPHRYS: And to remove or to mitigate that future danger, we've got, clearly, we've got to sort out the problems that exist in this world today, and one of those is Palestine and Israel. Now we seem to be much more concerned with getting a resolution of that problem than for instance do the Americans. President Bush seems much less concerned than we do. He won't even meet Mr Arafat. So that seems to be sending the wrong signal and people are concerned about that. STRAW: Well sorry with great respect I don't accept for a moment that there is no sign that President Bush does not agree that the Middle East should be sorted out. He does agree, I know for certain that he agrees and so does Secretary Colin Powell agree profoundly about the dangers from the current Israel Palestinian conflict and the importance of sorting it out. I just make this point about this now celebrated issue of a meeting between the President of the United States and President Arafat of the Palestinian Authority. Because of the position which the President of the United States holds, any meeting between him and any other leader, but in this case particularly leader of the Palestinian Authority, is going to take on far greater importance and symbolism than a meeting between President Arafat and any other leader the western world, including our own Prime Minister, because the expectations will be extremely high and therefore I'm sure that what President Bush is thinking about is well, not just do I see President Arafat, but what is going to be the outcome and the consequences of my doing so, because one thing is for certain that to hold such a meeting without there being a clear understanding of the likely outcome will actually not be to advance the peace process but to set it back. But it's worth remembering that when we talk about the Tenet and Mitchell plans, both of those are plans sponsored by the United States and also, and developed by United States officials, George Mitchell and Tenet the Head of the CIA, so it's not true at all that the United States is disinterested in the Middle East. What we're all searching for, what the Prime Minister is searching for is a means by which this extremely difficult conflict which has cost, since the Intifada started last September, so many hundreds of lives on both sides, is frightening civilians and others in Israel and disabling them from going about their lives, is causing the circumstances of the Palestinians in the occupied territories to get worse and worse. That this conflict can be put into a process where we get peace and not warfare from it. HUMPHRYS: But surely you would like to see President Bush putting more pressure on Israel to implement United Nations Resolutions? STRAW: What we want to see is a willingness by both sides in the conflict, on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side, to start down the road that was set by the Tenet plan and then get into the Mitchell plan and then towards the objectives which were actually set out very crisply and accurately today by President Bush of a situation of circumstances where the state of Israel is allowed to celebrate its existence by the people of Israel and permitted to do so, positively, not negatively, by the Arab States surrounding this, them, and at the same time, there is a viable Palestinian state. Now the words have advanced in recent months I'm pleased to say, and everybody is now fully acknowledging the overwhelming case for there to be a Palestinian state. What hasn't advanced sufficiently, is progress, and it has to be progress on both sides towards that end, but I know, and this has often been the subject of discussion with our Prime Minister and the President, that the United States is devoting a huge amount of effort to working out how to get the parties back together again, but it's because of the tensions and the suspicions, which have grown over the last year, particularly since the Intifada began, that, and for example assassinations of people like Minister Zeevi which set back the process just at the moment when there had been ten days quiet between the seventh of October and the seventeenth of October, that I know that, that it is acutely difficult and I think that, I say President Bush has to think about those difficulties before he sets up such a high profile meeting as has been proposed between himself and President Arafat of the Palestinian Authority. HUMPHRYS: Foreign Secretary, many thanks. STRAW: Thank you very much.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.