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Foreign Secretary: increasing political pressure on Colonel Gaddafi

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign Secretary William Hague discussed the political situation in Libya, including the UN sanctions agreed last night while speaking to the BBC on 27 February.

Interview transcript for the Foreign Secretary’s interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show:

Andrew Marr: Well listening to that was the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, good morning …

William Hague: Good morning.

AM: … Mr Hague. Before we turn to some of the things that John Simpson was talking about let me ask you about the overnight news and the Special Forces. First of all, who was involved and whether we had to in some way deal with the official Government in Libya, the people in Tripoli, to get those planes in and out.

WH: Well they didn’t give official permission for that, we tested that out the previous day whether they were prepared to cooperate with such flights and we didn’t get real cooperation. So we sent those flights in anyway yesterday. Of course there are risks attached to doing that and that is why we’re always reluctant to take those steps but we felt that was the only sure way to get those people out of the, out of the desert.

AM: There were suggestions the Prime Minister has said bribes were involved at some point in getting British personnel…

WH: I think that that suggestion was about the planes taking off and landing at Tripoli Airport and there is no doubt that the, the landing fees and taking off fees for aircraft at Tripoli Airport have rocketed over the last week, but we have to pay those fees. And you have to pay them in cash in this sort of situation. So yes the, but that is what they are and there’s no way of getting planes in and out of Tripoli otherwise without doing that.

AM: Do you know how many British citizens are still left in Libya?

WH: We’re working hard on that this morning, a lot of work is going on in Whitehall, we’re working intensively to work out who’s still in Libya and where they are. We would encourage people to let us know if they can where they are and, indeed, if they are back safely in the UK or in Malta because we know about a great many people’s whereabouts but we don’t necessarily know whether everybody who’s been in Libya has got out of Libya.

And so we are doing a lot of work on that and we will continue to help people be evacuated in various ways; HMS Cumberland will be back at Benghazi today to take away we think quite a small number of British nationals but it will help many people of other nationalities as we have been doing over the last few days.

AM: And if there groups of British oil workers or whoever still trapped in the desert have we got the means of getting them out should we find them?

WH: Well of course we didn’t comment in advance on what we did yesterday and you’ll understand that I’m not going to speculate in advance about anything else that we might do. All I can say at the moment is that we are working intensively to establish who is still in Libya and where they are. To see how we can assist with getting them out of there and we do continue to urge British nationals to leave Libya. There are, of course, some people who don’t want to leave or they may be dual nationals, they may have their families there in Libya.

AM: Did Tony Blair talk to the Government before he phoned Colonel Gaddafi?

WH: Not beforehand, we didn’t initiate those conversations but he did let us know about them. Clearly we’re not going to get in to a negotiation with Colonel Gaddafi …

AM: What do you, you think he must now just go?

WH: Well he must go, you know, we have throughout these crises in Egypt and Tunisia we’ve been careful to say it’s the people of these countries who must own the solution but the people of Libya have risen up against Colonel Gaddafi. We have here a country descending in to civil war with atrocious scenes of killing of protestors and a Government actually making war on its own people so, of course, it is time for Colonel Gaddafi to go. That is the best hope for Libya and last night I signed a directive revoking his diplomatic immunity in the United Kingdom but also the diplomatic immunity of his sons, his family, his household so it’s very clear where we stand on, on his status as a head of state.

AM: … no more shooting parties for Said Gaddafi in Britain?

WH: I’m afraid not.

AM: What about the question of lessons learned because for better or worse this country had become deeply involved in Gaddafi’s Libya, we’ve done huge commercial deals, oil most famously but not only oil, and we have been courting him as it were and selling him arms. Some of the rounds that might be used against demonstrators we applaud and approve of, these crowds, may well have been made and sold by British firms.

WH: Well let’s be clear we have revoked all licences …

AM: Now yes but as a country we …

WH: … that may be used in this situation …

AM: … we were selling …

WH: … and things have happened under the previous Government with which we disagreed; of course we emphatically disagreed with the release of al Megrahi and the Prime Minister and I made that clear when we were in opposition all be it that was a Scottish Government decision to do that.

No however I …

AM: The worst, the worst case of political hypocrisy that I can ever remember said Malcolm Rifkind, your Conservative predecessor, will you agree with that?

WH: Yes I think he’s not wide of the mark there, yes absolutely. But let me make this clear because I’m not critical of everything that the previous Government did in this regard. It was right to be able to try to establish a relationship with the Gaddafi Government that took Libya away from pursuing weapons of mass destruction programmes and the state sponsorship of international terrorism. If we hadn’t done that we might be in a worse situation now because the country descending in to this state would also have a greater variety of weapons of mass destruction so I think that was the right thing to do.

AM: Can I just ask you about that? I was asking Lord Mandelson about the same question. Are you clear that Gaddafi had weapons of mass destruction and then destroyed them?

WH: I think it was clear that he was developing various programmes and working on various programmes. There, there certainly was a programme of mustard gas creation and creating stocks of that.

AM: And, but as with the I mean was there a verifiable destruction at any point of these stocks?

WH: Some of those stocks do appear to exist although we’re not sure what condition they are in …

AM: Yes you see I just wondered if he gave anything away.

WH: … well I can’t know for sure I wasn’t in office at the time but he was steered away I think from any intention to have a nuclear programme for instance, we don’t know how far he would have got with that of course. So I think that level of engagement was right but there are lessons to be learned and Britain must be clearly on the side, across North Africa and the Middle East, of more open societies, of more open and flexible and democratic political systems and a more effective economic development of these countries.

AM: Do you think the Prime Minister has learned a lesson given that he was been in the region with people selling arms or trying to sell arms to other Governments in the region, some of which may fall or topple in the future?

WH: Well I don’t think anyone can really argue that we shouldn’t sell defence equipment, arms to a country like Kuwait that was invaded twenty years ago but, obviously, as an ally of ours that has to have the means to defend itself, that was invaded by Iraq, that is so close to Iran. So of course we have good defence arrangements with those countries and of course we, we help them with those things. But the Prime Minister was also the first head of Government in to Egypt this week and gave a speech in the Kuwaiti Parliament clearly on the side of sensible reform and democratic change across the Middle East and North Africa. And now I think the whole Western world has to work very hard together on this because if we get this right over the coming months it will be the greatest advance in world affairs since Central and Eastern Europe changed so dramatically twenty years ago and many of their countries entered the European Union. If we get it wrong well then uncontrolled migration, the, a breeding ground for international terrorism, these things will be the problems coming at us in future years. So now this is a historic challenge over the coming months.

AM: But if you look at a country like Libya which hasn’t really had a civil society …

WH: Yes.

AM: … I think one general election in its entire history …

WH: Yes.

AM: … we could have the situation of the Gaddafi regime falling and there still be appalling violence and chaos afterwards. So I just wonder on the international community side how much thought is now going in to that.

WH: Well we could have that absolutely and that means immediately certain things are required; the readiness to provide humanitarian help and our department of international development now has teams on both borders, on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders of Libya looking at how we can deliver such assistance if necessary. We have got through the United Nations very successfully, and the UK drove this all through this week, a Security Council resolution passed with unanimous support referring what has happened in Libya to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. And that sends a clear message to all involved, in the regime and any other groups that if they commit crimes and atrocities there will be a day of reckoning for them.

Beyond that, of course, we have to try to help with the development of civil society and functioning political parties and those sorts of things once the conditions in Libya allow us to do so.

AM: And, and you’re going to Geneva tomorrow I think.

WH: I’ll be in Geneva tomorrow with Hillary Clinton and other Foreign Ministers, again a diplomatic success that we had this week was to get Libya before the UN Human Rights Council with a motion passed for international investigations in to human rights abuses and calling for Libya to be suspended from the Human Rights Council, the ministerial meeting of that council takes place in Geneva tomorrow.

AM: Yes. I suppose the simple case against what Britain did under the previous Government, but running in to this Government’s time too would say that we got in too deep, too quickly and too naively with a dictator who gave us very little back and now we’re paying the embarrassing price for it.

WH: Well I certainly think one has to keep a distance from a dictator. We do have to do business though with countries we disagree with, you know, be in no, and we still have to do it. I called the Libyan Foreign Minister last night because you still have to communicate to them directly, personally this situation is unacceptable, yes we can still get through on the telephone to the Libyan regime and we use that to say this is an unacceptable situation and you’ve got to take steps to bring it to an end which in this case means the departure of the regime leaders.

AM: In terms of lessons learned what about the military side because the, the British Royal Naval vessel which went and picked up all those people including grateful Americans and so on and took them to Malta is on the list to be scrapped. And a lot of people would look at this and say yes it’s a fantastic sign all these, these uprisings but it shows the world’s a very dangerous place and perhaps we need to rethink some of our defence cuts, perhaps we need more defence in the years ahead than we had thought.

WH: It shows the world is a dangerous place but we, and we’ve had to rationalise what we’re doing in defence because we were left with such a huge overspend, such a vastly over committed defence budget. But at the end of it we will still be the fourth largest defence spender in the world and we will still have the full range of military capabilities …

AM: So you don’t think there needs to be a rethink of, of any kind on the defence side?

WH: I think we, we have the capabilities that we need for the future.

AM: Okay. It is said when there was that embarrassing delay of the jet going out to pick people up because it was a commercial airliner which had been hired, that the reason for a commercial flight being hired was that the Foreign Office didn’t want to pay the Ministry of Defence for Hercules to go out. Surely that was, if true, was an example of ludicrous cheese paring.

WH: Yes no, no well that, that is not true …

AM: That’s not true?

WH: … no absolutely not and, indeed, back two days before that the Foreign Office has been, been making clear we, we would need military flights, we needed the capability to have military flights.

AM: Okay are you, are you entirely happy with your own department’s performance …

WH: Well …

AM: … it’s always difficult for a Minister to criticise his department …

WH: … yes, and yes, and we have to take responsibility ourselves as Ministers …

AM: Yes of course.

WH: … and we had a very bad day on Wednesday because for a whole variety of reasons, several planes that were meant to be going to Libya didn’t go. Now what we did was we got on top of that quickly and actually I do want to pay tribute to so many of the staff involved because the Rapid Deployment Team in Tripoli Airport, you know they’re holding the Union Jack getting the British people through chaotic scenes, doing that night and day, did a fantastic job this last few days.

AM: We’ve, we’ve seen a lot of you on the media and visibly taking charge and so forth but both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were away during key parts of this, do you think the Government itself has to learn some lessons?

WH: I think the Government has functioned very well together. The Defence Secretary and I have had endless meetings together and just because the Prime Minister is in another country doesn’t mean he’s not in charge and on top of things, you know, this is a world of modern communications, we are able to talk to the Prime Minister even when he’s abroad. So I think the Government has worked well together.

And bringing together yesterday the last charter flight, the evacuation of our Embassy and the special forces operations in the desert, all of those things all happening in the same afternoon does show, actually, a strong coordination across Government departments.

AM: For now William Hague, Foreign Secretary, thank you very much indeed …

WH: Thank you.

AM: … for joining us