HC Deb 01 March 1951 vol 484 cc2504-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

2.16 a.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

Four and a half years ago, on 22nd October, 1946, a squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet was proceeding through the Corfu Channel, which is the strip of water separating the island of Corfu from the mainland. As that squadron was proceeding, a number of explosions took place which resulted in damaging one of His Majesty's destroyers beyond repair, seriously damaging another and, more important than either of those facts, killing 44 officers and men of the Royal Navy and seriously injuring some 22 others. Mine-sweeping operations carried out in the following months showed that the explosions had been caused by mines, and there was expert evidence that those mines had been laid during the preceding six months—that is to say, during a period beginning at least a year after the end of the war in Europe.

As a result of these investigations, His Majesty's Government sent a note to the Albanian Government protesting and claiming compensation, but as no satisfaction of any sort or kind was obtained, the matter was brought before the Security Council of the United Nations early in 1947. On 9th April, 1947, by a resolution of the Security Council, the matter was referred to the International Court of Justice at The Hague and, despite various attempts at obstruction of these proceedings on the part of Albania, hearings took place in the winter of 1948, at which this country was represented by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General. On 9th April, 1949, the International Court found Albania responsible and, in particular, held her responsibility to be based upon the fact that she must have. known of the presence of these mines in the waters adjoining her coast and had not taken the steps required under international law to notify shipping of the existence of these mines.

The Court at this stage adjourned the hearing as to the amount of compensation to be awarded. Further argument took place, and on both occasions Albania was represented before the Court. On 15th December, 1949—that is, some 15 months ago—£843,947 damages were awarded by the Court to this country. The amount was broken down into a sum of £700,000, in round figures, in respect of one of the destroyers which, although by quite magnificent seamanship taken to Malta, had proved unrepairable; some £93,000, in round figures, in respect of another destroyer which was repaired; and, to my view the somewhat modest figure of £50,048 in respect of the 44 persons of the Royal Navy who had been killed and the 22 injured. The findings of the Court on the merits of the matter amounted to a finding of plain and unmodified murder.

Not a penny of the damages awarded by the Hague Court 15 months ago has so far been paid. His Majesty's Government saw fit last summer to conduct conversations in Paris which this House was informed were conversations relating solely to the method by which the amount of damages awarded by the Hague Court should be paid. As I understand it, these conversations were conducted by Sir Eric Beckett on behalf of the Foreign Office and by the Albanian representative in Paris on behalf of his Government.

There were a number of Questions on the subject, but I need not trouble this House with any until we come to 24th July of last year. At that time the conversations had been proceeding in a leisurely manner for some months. A Question was asked on 24th July and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, whom I am glad to see on the Benches opposite, replied: A third discussion took place in Paris on 17th July. It was inconclusive, but the Albanian delegate was pressed hard to put forward concrete proposals. He was told that failure to do so would compel His Majesty's Government to doubt the Albanian Government's good faith. It is expected that a further meeting will take place shortly. I asked the Under-Secretary this supplementary question: Can the Minister say what will happen it the further meeting is equally inconclusive? The Under-Secretary replied: In that event, we should have to consider turning to other remedies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th July 1950; Vol. 478; c. 29.] The conversations did, as a matter of fact, prove inconclusive and there was one further Parliamentary Question to which I invite the attention of the House. On 29th Jan. of this year, to a Question relating first of all to the Paris conversations, it fell to the Under-Secretary to answer: The discussions have led to no result and are now considered to have concluded. His, Majesty's Government are, as a consequence, now considering what course of action is most likely to secure payment of damages by the Albanian Government. I asked this supplementary question: Can the right hon. Gentleman hold out any hope that consideration will merge into action within the next six months? The Under-Secretary replied: Yes, Sir. We are proposing to take action when we have decided which action it is best to take."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January. 1951; Vol. 483; c. 572.] I would only comment that the final supplementary answer of the Under-Secretary was given six and a half months after the Under-Secretary had assured the House on the 24th July, 1950, in the passage I have already quoted, that if the Paris meeting turned out to be inconclusive, the Government would have to consider turning to "other remedies." By 29th January their consideration of "other remedies" had not got beyond the stage of proposing to take action when they had decided what action it was best to take.

It seems quite intolerable that the matter should be allowed to rest where it now lies. Not only was the incident in the Corfu Channel in October, 1946, a quite intolerable affront to the dignity and to the prestige of the Royal Navy and this country, it was equally, as I have already described it, an act of plain murder committed on behalf of the Albanian Government. If the matter is to be left there, it is not only a humiliation to this country of which history has few parallels: it equally is a dangerous humiliation to accept at this time when it would seem to be profoundly dangerous to allow an impression to exist abroad that such wrongs can be done to this country with impunity.

If the matter is allowed to rest where it now lies, it is highly damaging to the prestige of the International Court, and indeed it would seem in future cases to make it quite futile for any country that has suffered wrong or injury to take the matter before the Hague Court when, as a result of the expense of arguing the case, they are to be left with a judgment that is not worth the paper upon which it is written. The Hague Court is not only the oldest but perhaps the most respected of the existing pieces of international machinery, and it will be doing a poor service to the peace of the world to allow the Hague Court method for the settlement of international disputes to fall into contempt.

Therefore, both on account of the grave and inherent wrong done to this country by a Power of whom little good can be found to be said in this century and equally the damage done to the prestige and respect held for an important piece of international machinery, I submit to the House that we are entitled to demand of the Government that the matter be not left where it is.

The Under-Secretary will recall that on another occasion, when perhaps a little harried by supplementary questions, he indicated that he thought it was for the Opposition to advise him what to do. That is not, if I may say so to him with due respect, a proper attitude to be adopted by the representative of the Foreign Office, who has at his disposal the immense resources and information and advice which are available solely and properly to Ministers of the Crown. I hope the Under-Secretary will not adopt that attitude tonight but will accept the responsibility which falls to him as representing the Foreign Office, and will indicate clearly and definitely the action which His Majesty's Government propose to take to execute the judgment which has been made in their favour.

As I say, it is for the Under-Secretary to make the positive suggestions, but if he has not got a concrete suggestion to put before this House tonight, I beg of him at least to consider the possibility of acting along the lines that I should like to indicate briefly. In the first place, this dispute was referred to The Hague Court as the result of discussions in the Security Council. The Hague Court proceedings having been rendered nugatory as a result of the attitude adopted by Albania, it would be at least open to His Majesty's Government to go back to the Security Council and ask for steps to be taken to enforce the judgment by levying distress upon Albanian property wherever it is to be found throughout the world. It is at least worth considering whether that could be done.

There is also the possibility—and I should like to hear from the Under-Secretary what steps have been taken—of inquiring into the location of Albanian property, not merely within this country but within the reach of His Majesty's Government's Forces. I do not know whether there are any Albanian assets in London; I do not know whether there are any Albanian assets in Malta or in the Colonial Empire; but I think we are entitled to be told by the Under-Secretary whether they have been investigated and whether they have been found.

Assuming there are not, then there are at least Albanian ships, although of small size, in the Mediterranean, and, if Albania continues to default upon the award made against her it seems worth considering whether those ships should not be taken into Malta and, if payment is not made, sold to satisfy the judgment wholly or in part. At least that would be action indicating that His Majesty's Government are not prepared to be cheated of the sum awarded to them, as a result of a case of high seriousness, by the International Court, and that would be not only a vindication, in some degree, of the affront suffered by this country, but also a clear indication to any other Power which may feel inclined to indulge in acts of aggression of this sort that this country cannot be treated in that way with impunity.

As I say, the precise action to be taken is the responsibility of His Majesty's Government. It is not the responsibility of private Members of this House to seek to indicate to those who hold office the precise details of action to be taken; but it is, with respect, one of the duties of hon. Members not to permit the Govern- ment to lapse into inaction merely because action may appear to present certain difficulties to His Majesty's Government.

I very much regret that a matter of this high importance should have fallen to be discussed on the Adjournment at half-past two in the morning, but such is very often the result of the working of our Parliamentary machine. I hope I have at least succeeded in indicating to the Under-Secretary that there is at any rate one Member of this House—and I believe there are more—who feels that it would be quite intolerable if this matter were simply to be left with His Majesty's Government holding the poor asset of nugatory judgment while the wrongdoer, who has defied this country, defied the United Nations and defied The Hague Court, was allowed—if I may use a colloquialism— to get away with it.

2.30 a.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

This is a matter which is of interest to both sides of the House. I do not think that anyone has ever attempted to condone the action of the Albanian Government, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has used exaggerated language in regretting the intolerable affront to the British Navy, and in commenting on the fairness of the judgment for £843,000 awarded by the International Court. At the same time, it must be appreciated that it is a matter of very great difficulty for His Majesty's Government to force home that claim. I do not think it has been suggested that the Government have allowed it to go by default. There have been negotiations. It is a difficult matter to enforce because there are no Albanian assets in this country.

There is one suggestion I have to make. I understand that during the war there was some Albanian gold held by the National Albanian Bank in Italy or somewhere else. I am not sure whether it has been handed over to the International Bank, but if that gold is outside Albania, and is in the hands of some international authority, it might be worth while for the Government to pursue that matter, and to see whether in that way the judgment to which His Majesty's Government are entitled can be enforced.

2.32 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ernest Davies)

The facts as put forward by the hon. Gentle- man the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) are quite correct. He stated the circumstances which led us to take this deplorable case to the International Court, where we obtained the judgment referred to—a judgment which we have so far failed to have implemented. I would stress at the outset that we are as concerned as he is that this award should be collected from the Albanian Government, but it is not at all easy to find ways and means whereby that can be done. Right from the outset, as soon as the award was made, His Majesty's Government considered how the Albanian Government might give effect to the judgment. Unfortunately, we came to the conclusion very rapidly, as we were bound to do in the circumstances, that Albania had no assets abroad whatsoever, nor were there any transferable assets to meet this judgment.

It was when we considered this situation that we had to look round to see what other action could be taken, if any, whereby we could obtain settlement. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we might levy distress on Albanian property in the United Kingdom, in the Colonies, or on the high seas, wherever assets could be found. Unfortunately they are negligible, and there is no way in which we can lay cur hands on any assets.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Are there no ships at all?

Mr. Davies

Before I deal with the question of ships, I should like to say that even if there were assets, it would be an extremely serious step to take to obtain possession of the property of a sovereign Power in time of peace, and it would require legislation to do so.

Mr. Pickthorn (Carlton)

When we were told repeatedly that what was being discussed in Paris were the methods of payment, what methods of payment were ever suggested either by our side or their side?

Mr. Davies

If the hon. Member will allow me to make my own speech, I will deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames. He referred to the possibility of taking possession of ships of the Albanian merchant marine. The only ships known to us, with one exception, are small fishing vessels and so on, which we do not consider it worth our while or desirable to accost on the high seas and take, as he suggested, into Malta. There is only one ship of over 2,000 tons, so far as we are aware, and that is not in the hands of the Albanians but of the Yugoslays.

Mr. Pickthorn

Who laid the mines?

Mr. Davies

The suggestion that we should look to see whether there are any assets within range of His Majesty's Forces struck me as dangerous. If he is suggesting that we should use force to take possession of anything that we could reach, we should be stepping on very dangerous ground. When we come to the question of discussions in Paris, which have been referred to and which have incensed the hon. Member for Carlton (Mr. Pickthorn)—

Mr. Pickthorn

It is what the hon. Gentleman said about them.

Mr. Davies

—during those discussions we at no point abandoned our right to a full settlement, but we wished to ascertain from the Albanians how and when they were going to make the payment which was due to us. We had four discussions with them in Paris, and three of them were concerned solely with the payment of damages. I have said this several times in this House and it is a correct statement. On 22nd September our conversation with the Albanians—the third one of the series—confirmed that it was unlikely that Albania would make any serious offer to meet the judgment, and so we informed them that unless they did so by the end of October, these discussions would cease, because they were fruitless and we did not wish to continue.

We received another approach from the Albanians in January of this year, when they asked for a further meeting. As we thought at that time there was no way of obtaining this sum of money, we decided it was worth while to meet them and see if they had any suggestion to make. Their offer was actually derisory; it was £40,000. Because of that, we decided to take serious steps to see whether any further action could be taken. We have not abandoned all hope and we are examining the possibilities of taking action which will lead to our obtaining this award.

We are exploring certain possibilities, but some of these it would not be in our interests to disclose from the point of view of obtaining payment. To disclose them might quite easily prejudice the outcome. Of course, the suggestion made by the hon. Gentleman that this question might be remitted to the Security Council is one of the possibilities, among others, and in connection with other matters, which is being seriously considered, and which might ultimately be taken. We certainly accept, as he said His Majesty's Government should, the responsibility for taking action in this matter and for finding ways and means of obtaining payment. Tonight he has put forward some suggestions, and we shall consider them.

As regards the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), who referred to some Albanian gold, there is no Albanian gold at the present time. All we are aware of is gold held by the Tripartite Gold Commission, which is gold taken from Albania, or rather from Italy, because it was actually in that country at the time, by Germany. It is held as part of the International Gold Pool. Both Albania and Italy lay claim to this gold and it is for the International Gold Pool to decide to whom it belongs.

Mr. E. Fletcher

Could the Parliamentary Secretary give an assurance that if the tripartite organisation hold that it is Albanian gold and not Italian gold, then we shall be able to earmark it.

Mr. Davies

Certainly not in that way. We cannot earmark gold which belongs to Albania, but if we knew that Albania was in possession of a large amount of gold, we should see in what way, if any, it was possible to obtain it and take whatever action was appropriate. To whom the gold belongs has not yet been decided, and I can say no more than that.

One other point which the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames raised was the loss of prestige of the International Court if this judgment is not met. He is quite correct in that, and it would be regrettable if, as a result of our failing to collect, the prestige of the International Court were affected. I doubt whether that would really be so, especially in view of the great difficulty of fulfilling the judgment. There have been no greater supporters of the International Court than His Majesty's Government. We are mindful all the time of upholding the prestige of the International Court and are aware that not one of its decisions has remained unfulfilled. We will certainly do our utmost to bring about the fulfilment of this judgment for payment of damages. All the way through His Majesty's Government have been supporters of the Court inasmuch as we have suggested to the United Nations the remission of disputes to the International Court and have always ourselves abided by the latter's decisions.

Finally, one must realise the difficulties that are involved in executing this judgment. The difficulties do not in any way condone the deplorable incident which resulted in this tragic loss of life. Albania is a country which is no larger than Wales and has a population of only a little over one million. There is no record of any trade with the United Kingdom at the present time and before the war the trade was roughly only £6,000 a year, which is obviously negligible. It has no assets abroad or assets known to be transferable. These factors must be borne in mind when an attack is made on the Government for failing to have this judgment executed. Perhaps it is not out of place to say also that the Albanian Government happen to be a Communist Government who do not respect the rule of law or the principles of international law as do the Western democracies.

If these claims are satisfied, the money goes to the Treasury. I want to remind the House that the people who suffered, the dependents of those who lost their lives and the injured, are not affected by whether this judgment is executed or not. They are in receipt of pensions and allowances and the execution of this judgment in no way helps them. The money will accrue to the Treasury. While we deplore this incident and regret our failure to execute the judgment, I would remind the House that, however much right there is on the side of the Government and however satisfying it is to be vindicated in this case by obtaining the money, obtaining the money from the guilty will bring no comfort to those who suffered. Theirs is a tragedy greater than failure to obtain monetary satisfaction.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)

Can the hon. Gentleman describe the circumstances in which the Albanian Government made this insignificant offer of £40,000? They admit liability in making any offer at all. Did they describe themselves as too poor to pay more?

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Thursday evening, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Fourteen Minutes to Three o'Clock a.m.