HC Deb 21 May 1952 vol 501 cc625-36

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

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Desmond Donnelly (Pembroke)

I am very glad indeed to have this opportunity of raising at such short notice the very important question of the Korean truce talks now taking place and the position of the prisoners of war. I am sorry that I am raising it under these circumstances, because the Adjournment Motion which my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) had drawn in the Ballot about Mr. S. B. Zukas has been ruled out of order as being sub judice, and I am fortunate enough to be able to take his place. I hope my hon. Friend will have an opportunity of raising this very serious matter himself at a later stage.

Let me say also how grateful I am to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of State for his courtesy in accepting this topic at such short notice and for coming to the House to reply.

This is an extremely serious matter. Indeed, no more serious topic could come before the House at the critical stage which has been reached in conducting the negotiations in the Korean war. The talks have dragged on for a very long time, there have been interminable negotiations and discussions, and we have often wondered whether they were making any real progress. I am convinced that events have proved wrong the pessimists who said that the Communists never wanted to reach any kind of agreement.

Three months ago, there were three major differences of opinion between the two sides. First of all, there was the question of airfields, and, on that, let me say that 1 recognise the great concessions made by the United Nations command to the Communist request. Then, secondly. there was the demand of the Communists themselves that the Soviet Union should be a member of the Armistice Commission, and on that particular point they have given way. There now remains only the third question, which is the outstanding matter of the prisoners of war. Even on that point, there have been modifications and agreements on the Communist side.

I think there were 40,000 South Korean prisoners of war of the North Korean Army who formerly lived in South Korea, and who had no wish to return to the other side of the 38th Parallel. That particular demand, which was made by the Communists in the first instance, has now been dropped by them, but there still remains the question of the 132,000 prisoners of war about whom the Foreign Secretary spoke in his statement to the House on 7th May and whom we discussed at Question time with the Minister of State on Monday.

These outstanding problems are problems which, I am convinced, given good will and determination on both sides, can be resolved very speedily, to bring to an end the bloody conflict which has been going on for such a long time, and which is going to leave a permanent mess, the clearing up of which will take, not years, nor even a decade, but several generations, before the memory, the hardships and the injury created, not only to the people and their outlook, but also to the installations which they built up over the years, their towns and cities and all the things which have been the products of generations of effort and work are cleared up.

This issue, which is not an issue for this House alone, but for the whole world, is so vital and so important that we must give immediate consideration to the question how the British House of Commons and the British Government can play their part in trying to bring about a solution as speedily as possible, before one more life is lost in a conflict which has already taken an untold toll. The issue at the moment is not the forcible repatriation of people who do not want to go back. Let me disclaim any thought of trying forcibly to send back people who are genuine political refugees from any regime. We on this side of the House have always said that we are proud of the great liberal tradition of giving asylum to people who are the refugees from any political regime. It is not the wish of any of us to undermine that great tradition which has been built up in this country and of which we are very proud.

The real issue is how to sift the genuine from the false, and that is something to which the Minister of State must address himself in the course of this debate tonight and something which the British Foreign Secretary must consider immediately he returns from his trip abroad where he has been dealing with the German problem. It is an issue we must look at immediately, and one about which there is considerable confusion at the moment.

On 7th May the Foreign Secretary talked about the fact that there were 132,000 prisoners of war of whom 70,000 were prepared to go back and 62,000 were not. That seems an extraordinary figure to give. It seems to be so fantastic that I should like the right hon. and learned Gentleman to know that not only myself, but the whole country, I believe, thinks it is an extremely doubtful figure. Frankly, I do not believe it.

There is great confusion about the whole thing, and the confusion is made worse by the various estimates of the figures which keep coming along. In today's "Daily Mail," Mr. Noel Monks, in the main feature story which comes straight from Korea, and in which he gives the whole story as he sees it about the prisoners, does not talk about 62,000 who do not want to go back, but about 32,000 who do not want to go back. That is slightly different from what the Foreign Secretary said on 7th May.

What has the right hon. and learned Gentleman to say about that figure? Can he give this House an assurance that there are really 62,000 among the prisoners of war in Korea who are not prepared to go back? If he is so certain, how does he arrive at such a conclusion? What evidence has he on which to base such a statement? Has he actually counted them himself, or has he no firm evidence at all on which to go? The statement made by the right lion. Gentleman on 7th May is the last kind of thing to inspire confidence. In it he said: Written notices were posted in the prisoner of war camps, and announcements were made over the public-address system there, to the effect that all prisoners were to be interrogated by impartial United Nations Command personnel to decide who would want to be repatriated and who had compelling reasons for refusing repatriation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1952; Vol. 500, c. 386.] What did the Foreign Secretary mean when he said "impartial personnel"? Are these American officers, top sergeants, majors, or what? Are they Communists or anti-Communists or people who do not care? How can they be impartial members of the United Nations Command? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain to the House tonight what exactly that means? There are a number of other points as well which give one a complete lack of confidence in the situation as it now exists.

There is the state of affairs in the prison camps and the riots which are taking place. They are not conducive to making people think that 62,000 prisoners of war do not want to go back to their own country. Whilst I do not want to bring that into the discussion now as the major issue, because it is only part of it, I do want to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he can clear up the doubt which exists in the minds of the British public.

Then there is the question of the Geneva Convention. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the feeling that exists among the British troops as stated by Mr. Noel Monks in today's "Daily Mail"? Mr. Monks says: Reaction among British and American troops is: 'These guys didn't like the idea of being killed, so they surrendered. They're entitled to the rules of the Geneva Convention and nothing else. What's all the fuss about?' I, too, want to know what all the fuss is about.

I want to impress upon the Minister the great public alarm and distress that exists as a result of statements which have been made from time to time. That distress is increased when many of us remember the situation on the Yalu river when General MacArthur was in command. But for the criminal folly of that man I do not think we should be discussing this subject tonight.

Then there is the statement of the United States Deputy-Secretary of State the other day, when he talked about the possibility of a naval blockade, which, of course, would mean the extension of the conflict into what might well be a world war. There are also the provocative statements of John Foster Dulles, another stupid statesman; and, finally, behind it all, the shadow of Chiang Kai-shek, seeking to re-establish himself, whatever the cost to mankind. All give the impression that the longer we go on with these discussions the more we play with fire, and that every minute that they last may well bring us nearer world war.

This is a time when the British Government can play a positive part in giving a lead to the world and trying to break this deadlock. We are told that this is the final offer, but we have heard that before. I want from the Minister a firm expression of the attitude of the British Government on this issue and to be told how they propose to break this deadlock.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)

There is serious anxiety on this subject not only on these benches but among wide sections of the public in this country. I do not think any of us are challenging that it would be inhuman to send back prisoners who have genuine grounds for fearing reprisals when they return home. Neither do we challenge the desire of the United States to reach a truce. Nor are we in any way casting stones at the American military who fought so bravely and suffered so many casualties in the common cause.

But the whole question of these prisoners of war is extremely disturbing and unsatisfactory. Clearly we must do everything we conceivably can to increase the chances of obtaining a truce and bring the fighting to an end. The key point is how we can sort out those who could return safely and those who could not return safely from among those who say they fear reprisals. We have had considerable experience of this difficult problem. The International Refugee Organisation and U.N.R.R.A. were faced with the problem of repatriating scores of thousands of Yugoslav and Polish displaced persons who did not want to be repatriated because of fear of reprisals.

There were three reasons for the difficulty then. The first was that many displaced persons were genuinely afraid of returning but were influenced, in fact, by exaggerated reports and propaganda deliberately circulated by powerful minorities inside the camps. Second, there were those who contrasted their existing conditions with those to which they were used. They were economic dissidents who resisted repatriation on economic grounds, though stating that they were afraid of reprisals. Third, there were those who had at the back of their minds that they might be resettled comfortably if they refused to be repatriated.

Those classes of people, numbering thousands among displaced persons resisted repatriation, but, in fact, they could go safely back. Through administrative action by the International Refugee Organisation they did go back and the I.R.O. know of no cases of reprisals against them. I beg the Minister not to regard this matter only as one of principle, on which we all agree, but to regard it as a matter of administration and psychology. Why should we not have a re-screening of these prisoners before an armistice instead of after it? We have been promised it afterwards by a neutral commission on which there are to be Communist observers. Cannot we have it before the armistice? I agree that all these things have to be done by agreement among the United Nations.

It may be that the Government are now in the position to state frankly what is their point of view. Is it the point of view held strongly on this side of the House? Can the right hon. Gentleman re-assure us that there is not now—as there was—anti-Communist publicity circulated amongst these prisoners who are asked to make up their minds whether they wish to go back or not? Are the same people responsible for screening these prisoners of war who were formerly responsible for their political education—for re-indoctrinating them away from Communist propaganda? Why are all the administrative methods used by I.R.O. definitely not being used in regard to these prisoners of war? I ask these questions in support of my hon. Friend's suggestion.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. C. E. Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)

I hardly think that either of the two speeches which have been made in this debate can be calculated to assist the rather delicate negotiations which are still taking place about the repatriation of prisoners, because, both speeches, by implication, cast doubts upon the impartiality of those who have conducted the screening.

Mr. Mayhew

Upon the experience.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe

Experience or impartiality. I think if we cast doubt upon the experience, by implication we cast doubt upon the impartiality. I do not think it very wise that this kind of implication should go out from this House at the moment.

The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) told us that on all sides there was complete agreement that there should be no forcible repatriation. Certainly, so far as I am concerned I am fully in agreement with him. I do not think anybody on either side of the House would wish to see prisoners of war forcibly repatriated, but it is very difficult to suggest a method of dissecting the false reasons from the genuine reasons for refusing repatriation. It would seem to me to be placing an almost impossible task upon those responsible for screening to ask them to assess the validity of the reasons why a particular prisoner does or does not wish to go back to where he came from before the war started.

I do not know why the hon. Gentleman was so surprised at the figures the Foreign Secretary gave the other day. Out of a total of 132,000 prisoners he said that 62,000 were not prepared to go back. Why did that high figure surprise hon. Gentlemen opposite? I think it is almost universally the case today that anyone who, for one reason or another, manages to get outside the Iron Curtain does not wish to go back if he can help it.

Mr. Mayhew

Over 80 per cent. of the displaced persons who fled from behind the Iron Curtain went back under I.R.O. auspices.

Mr. Mott-Radelyffe

I do not know whether the figure of 80 per cent. is right. In this case it is about 50 per cent; but that does not affect my argument. A very large proportion of those who succeed in getting outside the Iron Curtain do not wish to go back. I think it most regrettable, in view of the categorical statement by the Foreign Secretary at Question time the other day, that any suggestion of lack of complete impartiality should go from this House to those who conducted the screening.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Has the hon. Gentleman ever known of an impartial war?

11.44 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn, East)

I wish to add one point to those made by my hon. Friends and I do so briefly to give the Minister time to reply. I think he will agree that grounds for disquiet on this matter have been established and this country, having contributed to the United Nations' Forces and having our own men concerned in the fighting, has a grave responsibility. We have the right to ask how we are discharging it, and in every case that has been raised in the House at Question time, the replies we have had from the right hon. and learned Gentleman or the Foreign Secretary have been extremely unsatisfactory.

I am sure that they have given us that information with all the good will in the world, but the fact remains that they do not know fully the details of how the screening is conducted, or by whom it is conducted, and in what atmosphere. I repeat the plea that I made the other day, that we should at once send a British observer out there so that the House could have full reports on the matter. When I raised this matter the last time the answer was that we are kept acquainted with what goes on through the ordinary diplomatic channels in Washington. I suggest that in view of the importance of the matter that that is not good enough, and that we must have direct representation.

11.46 p.m.

The Minister of State (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd)

I have not much time in which to answer the points which have been raised in this debate. I must thank the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly), who raised this matter, for his courteous reference to myself, and for giving me notice of some matters which he wished to bring before the House. I must at once, however, do what I think is my duty, and repudiate what I thought were rather wild statements towards the end of his speech.

I thought his criticisms of the American Command, and of certain American individuals, were ill-founded, and did not contribute to a reasonable consideration of this matter. After all, we should remember that this was a war of aggression, brutally begun by aggressors, and that this is an experiment in collective resistance to aggression in support of the rule of law. I believe that our people are fighting a just war, and that the kind of allegation which the hon. Member made is not calculated to improve morale.

We all desire that an armistice should be negotiated as quickly as possible. I still believe that, given good will, it can be achieved. The only point of argument between the parties is the question of the restoration, or repatriation, of prisoners of war. I am asked why we do not agree to another screening before the armistice is concluded. I will give a simple answer. We wish the armistice to be concluded as quickly as possible. If there is a genuine desire to stop bloodshed on both sides, the offer made by the United Nations Command is a fair method of dealing with the difficulty.

Following an armistice, the United Nations Command would be willing to permit any suitable international body, or joint Red Cross teams, with observers from both sides, to interview prisoners held by the United Nations Command who have intimated that they would physically oppose repatriation. I think that is as fair an offer as can be made, and if there is a desire to stop the bloodshed, it can be done. All the Communists have to do is to rely upon this offer, made in good faith, that there shall be a rescreening after the armistice is concluded. I do not see how the other side, the Communists, would lose in any way by accepting that offer, and we would meet any reasonable request to see that there was an impartial re-screening conducted by impartial people.

The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) raised the question of British representatives. The existing set-up of a United Nations Command was accepted by the previous Government. For 16 months they allowed that system to operate, and it would be difficult for a change to be made now. We are, in fact, the only country, apart from the United States, which has, in Tokyo, a representative of the Chiefs of Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Bouchier, who is there as liaison officer with United Nations Command. We get periodical reports from him, and are also in touch through the normal diplomatic channels in Washington with the United Nations Command.

Mrs. Castle

Could not our representative in Tokyo pay a visit to this camp, and give a full report?

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Lady says "to this camp." I am not sure which one she means.

Mr. Donnelly

To all the camps.

Mr. Lloyd

Just because statements are not repeatedly made on the interchanges of information between the United States Government and the British Government, it must not be assumed that there is no interchange. Representations and communications are constantly being made to the United States Government on this matter.

I point out that it is the United States Government who have this responsibility, which was well established before the present Government took office. I think that the previous Government were perfectly right to accept that set-up. If a special position is given to another of the countries who are contributing men there, it is very difficult to resist applying it to all the other 16 or 17 countries who are sending forces.

Mr. Donnelly


Mr. Lloyd,

It is an exceedingly complicated method of fighting a war. After all, this is a war to prevent aggression. and it is rather important to keep command and control arrangements simple in order to achieve its being carried through to a successful conclusion.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) asked whether we were satisfied that the screening was conducted impartially, and it was pointed out that some or all of the persons concerned were United States soldiers and that, therefore, it was difficult to see how the screening could have been impartial.

From the very beginning it was appreciated that this question of repatriation would be a difficult matter. It was obvious that some prisoners of war would not want to return, but also it was quite obvious that the more who did not want to return, the greater would be the embarrassment to the United Nations Command. We wanted as few as possible to opt to stay in South Korea, and during the screening every endeavour was made to persuade as many as possible to agree to return. That, I think, is the testimony to the impartiality of the screening, because the Command who were engaged in it had an interest in making sure that as few people as possible should refuse to go back.

Mr. Donnelly: What kind of endeavours were made to persuade them to go back?

Mr. Lloyd

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary dealt with the general methods which were adopted in the statement which he made.

There is another category of persons. I quite agree that there were the some 40,000 others who had been roped in to the prisoner of war camps in the course of the ebb and flow of the campaign in Korea who were Southern Koreans and who were reclassified as civilian internees. The trouble which arose in one of the camps was because when some of these people expressed a desire to be repatriated to North Korea, steps were taken to try to sift them out so that they should ultimately have the opportunity of going.

I repeat again that as far as the United Nations Command are concerned, every interest of theirs lay in assuring that at the conclusion there should be as few of these people as possible who did not want to go.

Mr. Mayhew

May I ask the Minister a question?

Mr. Lloyd

I have only two minutes left, and I want to make this final point. We are firmly determined—I believe, with the support of all parties in the House—that we are not going to force back at the point of the bayonet people who do not want to go and who think their lives are in danger if they are forced to go.

The hon. Member mentioned the question of the Geneva Convention. We also believe that it is in accordance with the spirit of that Convention not to force people to be repatriated under those circumstances. Provided that there is a bona fide fear of political persecution, we do not believe that there is anything in the Geneva Convention which forces a Government forcibly to restore such prisoners.

Mr. R. R. Stokes (Ipswich)

If there was, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not do it.

Mr. Lloyd

As the right hon. Gentleman says, if there was, we would not do it. I am satisfied that the spirit of that Convention is as I have said, subject to the fact that they are bona fide in fear of political persecution, and also that they are not raising these objections to avoid military service or some other liability in the country to which they would be returned. I do not think there is anything in the Geneva Convention which is inconsistent with the attitude which the United Nations Command have taken up.

As I say, we believe that with a modicum of good will this matter could be settled straightaway and the bloodshed stopped, and that any sense of wrong or uncertainty which the Communists feel can be met by this offer of an impartial re-screening after the armistice is entered into.

Mr. Mayhew

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give the assurance for which I asked, that anti-Communist propaganda is not circulated, as it used to be, among troops who are trying to make up their minds whether they want to go back?

Mr. Lloyd

I cannot say whether anti-Communist propaganda is being circulated.

Mr. Hale

They are being indoctrinated, surely.

Mr. Lloyd

All I can say is that, according to my information, in all these screening arrangements efforts were made to prevent any of the Nationalist Chinese having any effect upon these people either to prevent them from choosing repatriation for political reasons or to retain them as recruits for the Kuomintang Army or anything of that sort. Whether inside the prison camps themselves there are any political activities going on I do not know. But there is not any official attempt to indoctrinate these people so that they will not return to inside the Iron Curtain.

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

Adjourned at Four Minutes to Twelve o'clock.