HC Deb 03 December 1956 vol 561 cc1005-16

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

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Norwich South)

Tonight I wish to raise the question of Her Majesty's Government's policy in relation to the future of the United Nations and, in particular, their attitude towards proposals for the revision of the United Nations Charter, which have been made from time to time, and which have been high-lighted by recent events. I do so with a due sense of diffidence. I must say that I have been appalled by current misconceptions of the nature of the United Nations, and by the way in which the Charter has been misinterpreted and bandied about in this House and elsewhere as if it embodied a simple code for the maintenance of world order. The Charter, of course, is a highly-complex multi-partite treaty, with many deliberate limitations and safeguards, which must be interpreted in the light of customary international law. It represents, indeed, not a final, but a primitive stage in the development towards world order. As the Prime Minister said at the Festival Hall on 18th November, Had the hopes cherished at San Francisco in 1945 been realised, the United Nations would have already become what it was intended to be, the beginnings of a world government based on collective security. But since this conception failed, it is folly to behave as though it had succeeded. We know that the veto power has been consistently abused by Russia, and it has not proved practicable for the Security Council to organise the armed forces, the assistance and the facilities which it was contemplated would be put at its disposal under Article 43. Meanwhile, as the Prime Minister said, It is futile to speak of the rule of law unless there is not only the will but the means to enforce it. Who can possibly believe that there would be today any United Nations force in Egypt if we had not paved the way? We cannot tonight forget that the United Nations has not yet been able to get a single observer into Hungary.

The question I want to raise is whether we can strengthen the United Nations, by a revision of its Charter or in any other way. As the House will know, some preliminary steps have already been taken to call a general review conference in accordance with the provisions of Article 109 of the Charter. The United Nations already has before it a Resolution which was passed by an overwhelming majority at the 1955 Assembly and which appointed a commission to consider the time and the place and the mechanics of the holding of a Charter conference. I should like to know whether Her Majesty's Government agree that such a conference should be held at an early date, and, if so, what steps they have taken or propose to take in order to formulate the policy for such a conference.

I think we must all be aware from the outset that revision of the Charter is not an easy thing. Although the calling of the conference is now easier as a result of the passing of the necessary ten years, the fact remains that at the conference, if it is convened, it is necessary, before any alteration can be recommended, to get a two-thirds majority. It is also necessary for any recommended alteration to be ratified by two-thirds of the Members of the Assembly. Furthermore those amendments are subject to the veto under Article 108. Nevertheless, I think we can determine what changes we want to work to bring about, in conjunction with other nations.

One advantage of a review conference would be to draw attention to the present weaknesses and to underline the need for measures to develop the United Nations into a body able to keep the peace and to enforce an effective rule of law. I believe that we should seize the opportunity to demonstrate our willingness to support these measures, if—and it is an important "if "—they can be based on an adequate body of international law such as we must frankly admit does not exist today, and which must be administered so as to secure justice.

In that connection, there are several specific questions which I should like to ask. So far as the veto is concerned, are the Government yet in a position to indicate the conditions under which we might consider either the abolition or the modification of the use of the veto in the Security Council? Do the Government accept the principle of the Van-denberg Resolution of 1948, which expressed, as the sense of the Senate, that the United States should seek voluntary agreement to remove the veto from all questions involving pacific settlements of international disputes and situations and from the admission of new members.

I think it would be fair to ask the United States Government if they still concur in the view expressed by Mr. John Foster Dulles, writing in 1950, when he was Special Adviser to the Secretary of State. In a book entitled "War or Peace," he said: It has happened so far that a majority in the Security Council has been friendly to the United States, so that our veto has not been needed to protect our interests. But it may not always be so; and, if it should not be so, certainly the United States would want to have a veto Power. We have already seen that the United States insisted upon putting the Japanese mandated islands under 'strategic' trusteeship, so that we may be able, through veto power in the Security Council, to block any disposition of the islands which we thought was against the security of the United States. Would we consent, for example, to putting ourselves in such a position that a majority Vote in the Security Council could require us to turn those islands over to Russia for administration, or to surrender the Panama Canal as a measure which would be in the interests of peace?

We have been criticised for the use of the veto, but in fact we have shown ourselves ready to surrender our vital interests in the Suez Canal area, provided only that the area is brought under effective international control and protection. Perhaps the United States is now ready to do the same in the case of the Japanese mandated islands and the Panama Canal? At any rate, we ought to ask the Americans where they now stand.

We have been criticised also for not obeying with sufficient alacrity the recommendations of the General Assembly. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary can say whether he can agree with the view expressed by Mr. Dulles in the same book, when he said: Assembly action cannot at the present stage of the world be made legally binding or more than a 'weighty' recommendation. But the weight of its recommendations would be far greater if the votes reflected not merely numbers but also ability to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security.

The General Assembly, of course, is not, as so many people imagine, either the highest court in the world or a world Parliament. In this connection, I would ask the Government to say whether they support the suggestion of Mr. Dulles, in his statement in 1954 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the United Nations Charter review, that the voting in the General Assembly should be "weighted" so that the result would indicate a verdict in terms of ability to play a part in world affairs.

The House may well agree that this is an urgent question, both because of the General Assembly's responsibilities under the "Uniting for Peace" Resolution of 1950 and because of the recent influx of new members. An analysis of the voting on the Belgian amendment to the General Assembly Resolution of 24th November illustrates how Western Europe and the non-Asian members of the Commonwealth were out-voted by a miscellaneous collection of Communist and Afro-Asian countries, many of whom are animated, in the words of the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) by hatred, avarice, greed and pseudo-nationalism. Indeed, there cannot be great confidence in a General Assembly which insists on regarding Colonel Nasser as an injured innocent.

It must be understood that the toy contingents of a United Nations police force operating under the extremely limited—I think, deliberately limited—powers of the "Uniting for peace" Resolution can fulfil only very limited aims. That is made quite evident by the difficulty which arises from the necessity for securing from the country in whose territory the troops are to be situated that country's consent.

I would therefore ask the Government whether they have in mind proposals for amendments to the Charter which would make a start in giving the United Nations the teeth which it was envisaged it would have if Articles 43 to 49 were properly implemented. If so, has any consideration been given to how such a force would be controlled? And are the Government in agreement with the view that, before such a force can enforce the law, there must be laws to enforce?

Do the Government consider that the provisions of Article 13 of the Charter for the development of international law and its codification are adequate, supposing there were any signs of their being implemented? Is it, for example, considered that it would be worth while now trying to tackle what we all know to be the extremely difficult task of defining "aggression "—and, one might add, "economic aggression" also—or the task of defining the inherent right of "self-defence"?

I certainly believe that it would be impossible to conceive of any definition under which Israel could be considered as an aggressor for the action which she took against Egypt, first, because Egypt has for years declared that she is at war with Israel, and. secondly, Egypt is itself in breach of the only decision that the Security Council has made concerning the scope of the right of self-defence under Article 51, a decision—not a recommendation or resolution—which calls upon Egypt to terminate the restriction on the passage of international and commercial shipping.

Meanwhile, while we are trying to secure a strengthening of the United Nations through a revision of its Charter or by any other means, do the Government agree that there cannot be one set of rules for those who are prepared to cooperate with the United Nations and another for those who are not?

In raising this question, I am not unmindful of the difficulties of taking effective action to secure a revision of the Charter, but there would appear to be much to hope for and little to fear from a conference called primarily to take stock of the position after eleven years of not so very happy experience.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Younger (Grimsby)

I do not want to take up the time of the House, but I wish to make one comment before the Joint Under-Secretary of State replies to the debate. I came here hoping that we would hear from the benches opposite something to indicate a wish to make the authority of the United Nations greater, but I did not find it in the speech of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon).

We all know that there are legal imperfections in the Charter. We all know that the United Nations has not developed the force which it was hoped it would be able to develop, particularly under Article 43, at the time of San Francisco. There are, however, two ways of approaching the problem of strengthening the United Nations. One is to talk in terms of increased legal powers, standing police forces and armies, the reform of the Charter and the abolition of the veto. All these are good things to discuss, but they are probably the most difficult way to strengthen the United Nations and, I should have thought, not the first step that has to be taken.

The second way to strengthen the United Nations is, even in the absence of the legal perfection for which we seek, to act voluntarily in accordance with the principles of the Charter, particularly to pay attention to the provision near the beginning of the Charter which enjoins on everybody the settlement of their disputes by peaceful means and to recognise a consensus of world opinion as expressed through the United Nations, even if there is not at present the full power to enforce it.

It is no use saying that that is ineffective. That is what was done in the case of the Korean War. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] There was no proper standing United Nations force; there was only a recommendation, and not an order given by the United Nations—

Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)

In Russia's absence, it was binding.

Mr. Younger

—but, in fact, the nations of the world, in sufficient quantity, voluntarily obeyed the recommendation of the Security Council. It was not an order. They voluntarily created ad hoc a force which did a very useful job.

I really do not think that it is giving support to the United Nations in any practical way to raise, as did the hon. Member, a whole series of legal difficulties while appearing to take a pride in justifying a refusal on the part, I suppose, of his own Government—he was talKing in the abstract—voluntarily to act in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter and with the clear verdict of immense majorities, including the votes of nearly all our friends in the world.

10.19 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. David Onnsby-Gore)

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) was not quite fair to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) in that my hon. Friend was raising the particular issue of the revision of the wording of the Charter. It was not meant to be a debate on the general operations of the United Nations as an organisation—indeed, that would not be a very suitable subject for debate on an Adjournment Motion.

My hon. Friend has raised the specific question of the details of a revision of the document known as the Charter of the United Nations and I thank him for the able and thoughtful way in which he introduced the subject. He set the question of revision against the background of the whole conception of the United Nations and made two important points: first, that the United Nations is not an international court of law; and, secondly, that it is not a form of world parliament.

It is worth repeating that the United Nations is a voluntary association of nations committed to common goals; but, nevertheless, the individual nations remain sovereign. Therefore, when the United Nations reaches decisions it is not passing laws binding on Governments in the ordinary legislative sense. It is simply adopting recommendations—of great moral weight, I agree,—but there is no power of compulsion.

The only exception is when the Security Council orders action against armed aggression and such action is not vetoed by any of the permanent members of the Security Council. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman was quite accurate over this. I think that in the Resolution passed by the Security Council in the case of Korea, in the absence of a Russian veto it was really binding—

Mr. Younger

A recommendation.

Mr. Ormsby-Gore

It was a recommendation which insisted that the Governments should take action in that case of aggression.

The United Nations is, quite clearly, not a supranational authority. Its effectiveness—and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's point about this—lies in the will to act of the respective Governments who are its members. My hon. Friend was quite right to set out these fundamental facts in order that the question of revision of the Articles contained in the Charter should be put in its proper perspective.

I do not think that my hon. Friend would expect me to comment on some of his expressions of opinion, still less on the expressions of opinion of certain prominent American statesmen, whose views are, after all, not the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government. However, I will attempt to answer some of the specific points on revision which he put to me.

First, as to the Charter review conference, the Government hope that it may be possible to hold a Charter review conference at an early date. Obviously, much will depend on the international political circumstances, for it would be idle to hope that any progress on Charter review could be registered if the international circumstances were not auspicious. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the United Kingdom joined in sponsoring the Resolution at the United Nations General Assembly, in 1955, which expressed the belief that it is desirable to review the Charter in the light of the experience gained in its operation.

The Resolution proposed the establishment of a committee to consider the time, place, procedure and organisation of a Charter review conference. The committee is to report to the Twelfth Session of the General Assembly which meets in 1957. We shall, therefore, have ample time in which to formulate the policy which we would put forward at the review conference, and I need hardly say that there will be careful preparation of the ground beforehand.

But perhaps I ought to warn the House that at present, at least, the omens for the success of the review conference are not too favourable. At the last session of the General Assembly the Soviet delegation opposed review in any form and announced that it would not even be prepared to take part in the work of the Preparatory Committee. As my hon. Friend has already said, the veto applies to any alterations in the Charter.

My hon. Friend also asked about the Government's views on the veto. He specifically asked whether we would indicate the circumstances in which we would be prepared to propose the abolition or the modification of the veto in the Security Council. In fact, we have never been opposed to the veto provision; nor I think were the previous Government. The right of veto was originally granted to the major military Powers whose unity was considered essential for the maintenance of world peace. The trouble with the veto is that it has been so often misused. The Soviet Government, for instance, used it for blocking the admission of new members.

Mr. Stan Awbery (Bristol, Central)

Have we not used it?

Mr. Ormsby-Gore

Not for blocking the admission of new members. As long ago as 1947 we and the United States Government declared publicly that we would not use our veto powers in respect of admissions and we have never done so. I would also remind the House that the Soviet Government have exercised their veto on no fewer than 79 occasions, whereas we have used it on two occasions—I agree in recent weeks.

Mr. Henry Usborne (Birmingham, Yardley)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how many times Britain or America has notified the other that in the event of such and such being proposed it would have to veto it, and, therefore, it would not be proposed? In other words, how many times has the veto been used behind the scenes?

Mr. Ormsby-Gore

I do not suppose that the hon. Member would think it possible to find that out. I do not know that there have been any cases. In any event, it is not a fact that is easily established.

As to weighted voting—the suggestion that there might be some modification in the method of voting whereby those nations more able to play a part in world affairs might have a greater voting strength—apart from objections in principle, there seem to be insuperable practical obstacles to it. For instance, the smaller countries which form more than two-thirds of the United Nations could hardly be expected to surrender their present voting rights in favour of the great Powers. Therefore, there is no chance of securing a majority for such a change, even if it were considered to be desirable.

Mr. Awbery

Is not the purpose of this debate to urge upon the Government the necessity of revising the Charter and not to go into the details of revision, which will come after the Government have decided the principle?

Mr. Ormsby-Gure

We are not discussing the principles of the United Nations at the moment, but specifically discussing possible revisions to the Charter. I am trying to reply to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South.

Mr. Awbery

But the hon. Gentleman is discussing them in detail.

Mr. Ormsby-Gore

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South referred to proposals to give the United Nations the teeth which it was intended to have. Her Majesty's Government do not contemplate putting forward any such proposals at present. It would be best first to find out how the United Nations Force now in Egypt succeeds in its task.

We certainly hope that as a result of events in the Middle East some means will emerge to enable the United Nations not merely to pass resolutions but also to enforce them, and we would wholeheartedly agree that there cannot be one set of rules for those who co-operate with the United Nations and another set of rules for those who do not. When it comes to drawing up sets of rules, however, we must be very careful to ensure that these do not in themselves frustrate efforts to maintain the international rule of law.

The question of defining aggression is a good example of this. The United Nations has discussed the question of defining aggression for several years, but without reaching any agreement on what would constitute a satisfactory definition. It has emerged more and more clearly that any definition is bound to leave loop-holes by which potential aggressors might seek to justify their acts, and that it would be of doubtful value as a deterrent. I am not aware of any attempts at defining self-defence, but I am afraid that much the same difficulties would arise there.

In general, the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards review is that the Charter as it stands is a sound document. It is the will to apply it in the spirit as well as in the letter which has so often been at fault. Perhaps it does not quite conform to Napoleon's dictum that any written constitution should be short and obscure. Nevertheless, considering that eleven stormy years have now passed since it was drafted it is remarkable how very little detailed criticism there is of its actual wording.

However, as my hon. Friend has said, it is time the member-nations took stock of the position. That is why Her Majesty's Government sponsored the Resolution setting up the Preparatory Committee. We shall do all we can to help it in its work, and we shall make our contribution to the efforts of the review conference to improve on the existing Charter; but always bearing in mind that the wording is far less important than a genuine will among the nations to strive for peace with justice.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Stan Awbery (Bristol, Central)

There can be no doubt in the minds of hon. Members, after our experiences of the past three or four months, that the time has come to revise the Charter.

The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) gave me the impression that he wanted to revise the Charter in such a way that it would not cut across what we in this country want. If that is the revision that he wants, I do not think we shall get it.

Looking round the House, I find that there are three categories of hon. Members in relation to the Charter. There are some who disagree with the United Nations and do not want it in any circumstances. It cuts across the sovereignty of Great Britain, and, therefore, they say that the machine is no use at all. They also tell us that the weaknesses which have been displayed during the past few months are such that it is unworkable, and they would destroy it if they had the opportunity.

Then there are those who give patronising approval to the United Nations. They agree with the United Nations so long as it agrees with them. They are not prepared to accept a decision of the United Nations if it cuts across their liberty of action. We have had that among our experiences during the past week or so. The analogy is a magistrates' court. A prisoner comes before the court and the case for and against him is heard, the magistrates come to a decision, and the prisoner accepts it. We put our case to the United Nations as forcibly as we possibly could. The decision of the United Nations was against us. It is our duty to accept the decision of that impartial tribunal.

The third group consists of those who fully endorse the principles lying behind the United Nations. We feel that it is the only organisation in existence which stands between us and the atom bomb. It is the only international organisation that can maintain the peace of the world. We want to maintain it for that purpose. We are strong advocates of the United Nations.

What is the alternative to the United Nations? The alternative is a scramble for the strongest Power, the largest number of atom bombs—

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 twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.