HC Deb 05 December 1961 vol 650 cc1331-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

12.34 a.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I wish to raise tonight the deplorable failure of the United Kingdom delegate on the Political Committee of the United Nations to support a resolution calling for the declaration of the continent of Africa as a neutral and nuclear-free zone. This was an opportunity, which comes to this country only too rarely, to make clear that, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, the developing nuclear arms race and its accompanying drift to war required emphatic action wherever possible to stop them.

One point on which Her Majesty's Government have claimed to be different from the Soviet Union is that Her Majesty's Government have said time and again that we should not merely strive towards the difficult and elusive goal of general and complete world disarmament, but should advance wherever possible by practical steps to that end, stage by stage. One obvious practical step would be to support any effort anywhere in the world to declare certain parts of the globe to be nuclear-free areas into which nuclear weapons should not be introduced if we in the West could do anything to stop it.

The continent of Africa is, I suggest, outstandingly one of those areas. Some of us would like to see Europe made a nuclear-free zone also, but we recognise that the great Powers are already there in occupation, in situ, nuclear weapons and all, and the possibility of rolling back the forces of the great Powers facing each other, equipped with nuclear weapons, is rather remote and difficult of attainment. But Africa, at any rate until the French Government started their atomic tests in the Sahara, was innocent of the horror of the nuclear weapon.

We all know that it is the great desire of the overwhelming majority of the African peoples that they should not be embroiled in the cold war and that their country should not become a nuclear battle-ground.

It was, therefore, a large number of the African Powers who, in the Political Committee of the United Nations, introduced in November of this year a resolution which called upon the members of the General Assembly to recognise the need to prevent Africa becoming involved in any competition associated with the ideological struggles between the Powers engaged in the arms race, particularly with nuclear weapons, and called upon the General Assembly and its members also to recognise that the task of economic and social development in the African States required the uninterrupted attention of those States in order that they might be allowed to fulfil their goals and contribute fully to the maintenance of international peace and security.

In the context of those introductory objectives, the resolution had the following three specific provisions. It called upon Member States: (a) to refrain from carrying out or continuing to carry out in Africa nuclear tests in any form; (b) to refrain from using the territory, territorial waters or air space of Africa in testing, storing or transporting nuclear weapons; (c) to consider and respect the continent of Africa as a de-nuclearised neutral one". I am at a loss to understand how the representative of Her Majesty's Government, claiming, as that Government do, to care for the goal of world disarmament, could have refused to back that resolution, not only with a vote, but with passionate speeches of support.

In heaven's name, what are we waiting for to start the disarmament race instead of the arms race? What opportunity, what initiative are we hoping will fall from the skies if we ignore an opportunity such as the one that was presented to us? Indeed, so overwhelming was the case for the resolution that no member of the United Nations dared to vote against it. They would stand indicted in the eyes of the world had they done so.

What did Her Majesty's Government do? They joined a number of Powers, whose enthusiasm for disarmament is very suspect in the eyes of the uncommitted nations, in cowardly abstention upon one of the clearest issues that the United Nations has ever had to discuss. In doing so, of course, they joined company with such anti-imperialist Powers as South Africa, and they joined company with a number of African States who are associated with the French Community—in other words, who are economically dependent for their future development upon France and dare not, in the United Nations, condemn France for conducting tests in the Sahara in the teeth of opposition from the rest of Africa.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) and I raised this matter in the House the other day, that fact was given as one of the reasons which excused the representative of Her Majesty's Government for joining them in abstention. Everyone knows that in these African affairs, the African nations who are associated with the French Community are in a special class, the class of territories dependent upon the economic neo-colonialism of the French Government.

When we asked our Question the other day, we were referred by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs to a speech by the United Kingdom delegate for the Government's excuses for abstaining on this issue. I have referred to that speech. It contains no justification whatever. In fact, it is another parade of that typical British hypocrisy which is losing us the leadership of the uncommitted nations, which we could have if we had the courage and the vision to try to seize it in these perilous times.

The United Kingdom delegate said that he did not believe it was for the United Nations to direct States to follow any particular policy except in so far as, in particular cases, the pursuit of a given policy threatens the peace. Does not the introduction of nuclear weapons into an area where they do not exist threaten the peace? What else threatens the peace if it is not the dragging of an unwilling continent into the nuclear arms race of the great Powers in their pursuit of the cold war?

Another argument advanced by the United Kingdom delegate was that it was not very good passing the resolution because There could be … no guarantee that Africa would be 'atom free' in the absence of effective international verification. Such verification is possible only within the context of agreement on disarmament in all its aspects. This is putting off into the never-never-land any progress towards disarmament.

It is exactly the same argument that the Soviet Union has recently advanced when some of us have been hoping and praying that we could advance towards a limited agreement on nuclear weapon tests. The Soviet Union started hedging by saying that we could have inspection and control of nuclear weapon tests within the context of general disarmament, and when the Soviet Union used that excuse we all accused her of hypocrisy, myself among them. Certainly Her Majesty's Government did so, but when it suits their books they advance exactly the same argument.

This is why I have raised this matter on the Adjournment. Great Britain claims that she is an ex-colonial Power. Great Britain claims credit for the fact that she has given and is giving still political independence to certain African States, but in this crucial moment of world history that is not enough. We must enter into the hearts and minds and spirits and needs of these African people if we are to turn a once imperial rule into close partnership and into joint political leadership.

We shall lose their sympathy, their friendship and their love unless we identify ourselves with their demand that their continent shall be kept clean of nuclear weapons and that they shall be allowed to concentrate on the job of fighting poverty instead of fighting the cold war. What is more, by failing to associate ourselves with them and with the initiative for peace by the uncommitted nations in the United Nations we are jeopardising the lives of our people in our own country and heading the world along the road to war.

12.47 a.m.

Miss Jennie Lee (Cannock)

Not much needs to be added to the eloquent plea that has already been made, but I would ask the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs to keep in mind that we have been told that the great drama of our times is the struggle for the souls of men and that ultimately the question whether there will be war or peace will be decided not just by the extent of our arms but by how far we can convince the great masses of men and women that we really mean peace.

One of the most hopeful and helpful things that have emerged in recent times is the clear indication that the new States in Africa do not want to be the creatures of either Soviet diplomacy or Western diplomacy. Surely this should be our opportunity, and we are doing the gravest disservice when we are deliberately antagonising millions and millions of citizens who are becoming increasingly conscious of the problems of the world as well as those of their own country. As I wish to leave time for others who may want to take part in the debate and for the Government reply, I will say no more than to ask the Government please not to under-estimate the importance of this point.

12.49 a.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I have listened with care to the remarks of the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle). I thought that her speech was somewhat intemperate at some stages and I will deal with the points she made, but I was more impressed by the shorter intervention of the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee).

I have observed the criticisms that have been made of the action of our delegation in abstaining on this Resolution dealing with de-nuclearisation of Africa. I think I should summarise once again the reasons why we chose to vote in the way we did, but I must ask the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) to realise the position that the Government felt bound to take up on this matter, and on other matters of similar nature. This is not an isolated resolution. There are a number of resolutions here, and we have followed a consistent policy in this regard and one which I believe has the support of the great majority of our people.

My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State explained on 29th November why we did not feel it appropriate to lay down a foreign or defence policy for all the countries in a given area. It is an unreasonable thing, and it would be wrong for us to seek to do so. At that time, the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) said that the great majority of the people of Africa demanded neutralisation of the continent. The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn has used similar language. It may or may not be the case that the great majority desire that. All we have to go on is the votes of the African states concerned at the United Nations.

Mr. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)


Mr. Godber

I cannot give way. I have only a short time. Of these countries, 15 voted for the resolution and 9 abstained when the resolution was voted on in the First Committee. An additional country abstained in plenary at a later stage. Thus, I do not think one can call it an overwhelming majority.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

South Africa had a vote.

Mr. Godber

South Africa I did not include. There was an additional abstention in plenary. I have deliberately excluded South Africa for this argument. The hon. Member for Blackburn sought to say that certain of these countries were not free agents in this matter. I believe that this is a wrong approach to take to countries which have been given full sovereignty and which are members of the United Nations. It could be applied equally to countries of certain blocs which always vote one way as it could to these African countries. They are entitled to be considered as sovereign and independent states. It is a very dangerous line to take to say that they are not free in this respect.

But even if the majority in favour had been larger, the principle remains that geographical contiguity does not give Governments the right to impose a given policy on their neighbours. If some African states wish to de-nuclearise their territories, they are free to do so. No one would wish to stop them. But if they wish to get their neighbours to follow suit, it is up to them to persuade their neighbours, using the ordinary processes of international intercourse. We do not think it the function of the United Nations to lay down policies for whole areas against the will of some of the sovereign states in those areas. That is something which must be realised but which does not seem to have been realised in the hon. Lady's speech.

There are other drawbacks which arise from the nature of the proposals in the Resolution. Frankly, although, of course, we understand the feelings of those African states who want to isolate Africa from the threat of nuclear war, we are not sure that such isolation would hold in the event of a world war breaking out. We believe that the only way to remove the danger facing Africa, as with the danger facing the rest of the world, is by seeking to achieve the purpose of this and other resolutions in this vein through the wider effect which we now have to get in the form of general and complete disarmament.

We would welcome, and wanted to achieve, the banning of nuclear tests all over the world, and we have been very disappointed that there has been such a sharp setback in that matter, but so far as getting rid of nuclear arms altogether is concerned, we believe that that must be done in the context of general disarmament. This is what we want to achieve, and it is what the Government is anxious to achieve. We are working towards it through, we hope, the new body set up at United Nations.

This is something positive in this field, and we should merely mislead world opinion if we were to claim that isolated zones of peace could be established or maintained while the arms race and the danger of war raged in the rest of the world; and that is true of all arms. After all, it was Mr. Litvinov, I think, who said that peace is indivisible, and that applies in this context; it applies to all arms, and how much more true it is of nuclear weapons. The wide geographical extent of the fall-out of the recent grim series of nuclear tests by the Soviet Union is alone enough to show how impossible it is to confine the effects of nuclear weapons to any one part of the globe.

This can only be done on a worldwide context with weapons of this type.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Does the hon. Gentleman want to stop this?

Mr. Godber

Another point on which we view this resolution with some reserve is the absence from it of any reference to the need to verify and inspect the measures which would be taken. This applies particularly to that part of the resolution related to nuclear tests. The hon. Lady thought this to be a wholly unreasonable attitude, but this must be the whole basis of anything which has any element of security about it. It is no good at all seeking to carry out measures of this kind unless one has proper and effective international verification. That is absolutely fundamental to any solid basis upon which we can build in this field and it is nonsense to brush this on one side; that does no good to anybody. That applies particularly to this resolution, and the part relating to nuclear tests. The only way of dealing with this problem is a treaty suspending all tests under international verification. That is an essential by which we must stand.

I was a little puzzled when the hon. Lady, in the context of verification, talked of progress in this field as being something in the "never-never-land." That really is an unreal approach because, unless it is accepted that there must be verification measures in the modern world, with all its suspense and suspicion, there cannot be anything; and that applies to the narrower field as well as to the wider field of armaments as a whole.

There is a very real danger in passing "cosy" resolutions designed to damp down people's fears, but which in fact do not provide any element of protection or security at all and which almost certainly would be cast aside under the pressure of events. That is something which we have to face up to, and unless there is some form of verification, such resolutions are of no benefit at all.

Mr. M. Foot

Why did the Government not vote against the Resolution?

Mr. Godber

We made our stand perfectly clear. We thought it inappropriate and quite sufficient to show our decision by abstaining on a resolution of this kind.

Mr. Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he answer this question? Why have Her Majesty's Government not put forward any plan to the Governments of the African States for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and bases to the African States, persuading them to adopt a plan for the control and verification of areas in order to prevent the problems of nuclear tests and nuclear bases from arising in Africa?

Mr. Godber

It seems that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) was so keen to put his question that he was not listening to what I was saying. In effect, I was saying that we believe that these plans for nuclear tests must be on a world-wide basis and that it is misleading to think that there is any value in the basis of dealing with one continent at a time in this way. We have to do it on a world-wide basis if we are to get effective cessation of nuclear tests, or control, or whatever it may be. It must be done on a world-wide basis because of the very nature of nuclear weapons, and I thought that I had already made that abundantly clear.

Mr. Swingler

They must have nuclear weapons before they are stopped.

Mr. Godber

On the question of developing nuclear weapons; I must remind hon. Members that there is a very clear difference between the resolution which we are discussing and others which have been tabled to attempt to prevent the spread of nuclear capacity, that is, what is known in the jargon of the nuclear test conference, as the emergence of the Nth Power. Although we do not consider that a resolution such as that which we have been discussing can be effective in isolating particular areas from the danger of nuclear war, or that we could vote for resolutions like the recent Swedish one, for instance, which, we say, would impair N.A.T.O.'s ability to defend itself, if need be with nuclear weapons, at the same time we believe that something can and must be done to prevent the acquisition by any further countries of an independent power to manufacture or use their own nuclear weapons. For this reason, we have voted in this very session of the Assembly for the resolution put forward by the Irish Government to this very end. I think that that is an effective answer to the point which the hon. Member has just made.

I do not have time to develop the case as much as I would like, but I repeat that our abstention on this resolution did not indicate a callous indifference or anything of that sort. Still less did it indicate any desire to involve the African continent in the danger of nuclear war. It simply indicated our strong doubt about whether the Resolution would have any useful effect. As I have said, I do not believe that there is any value in passing resolutions which provide no element of safeguard and which merely result in confusing and giving people a false sense of security. That is not the way to help to deal with this problem.

The best way to advance is to try to get progress in the nuclear test talks, which we have been doing and which I was trying to do in Geneva last week; and also in seeking to get a new form for negotiating disarmament in its widest sense and to make progress in that direction. Those are the ways to do it, but they must be done, I repeat once more, on a definite basis of international verification and control. If once we get away from that, there is no basis for security of any sort. We have a duty to ourselves and to others to whom our lead in the world means something to bring this fact always before their minds and certainly not to mislead them in the way that the remarks of the hon. Lady would certainly mislead them and which I totally reject.

Mr. John Stonehouse (Wednesbury)

In view of the great importance of this subject to the Commonwealth, and especially to the States which are not yet independent and which do not yet have their own voices, what steps were taken to consult them and particularly to consult the opinion of Tanganyika and Uganda?

Mr. Godber

We have regular meetings at the United Nations with States which are independent within the Commonwealth. These matters can be and are discussed on various occasions in that way. There is not the same facility with non-self-governing territories, but various of those countries are coming forward to self-government—Tanganyika will be coming forward soon—and we hope to see her at the United Nations. I have given an indication of policy which applies both to Africa and the rest of the world. I repeat that this is not a matter which can be effectively dealt with on the basis of areas and that it must be dealt with on the basis of the world as a whole.

Mr. Brockway

The hon. Gentleman said that there was not an overwhelming majority in Africa on one side of this issue. Is he aware that the population—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday 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 four minutes past One o'clock.