HC Deb 07 March 1962 vol 655 cc545-56

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

10.11 p.m.

Sir William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

The subject of my Adjournment is compensation for British subjects whose property has been looted by United Nations troops in Katanga. Since I chose that title I have had a list given to me of the British subjects who not only had their property looted but were murdered, and I should therefore like to include that issue, too.

It is only a few days since my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs took part in an Adjournment debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Dr. D. Johnson). The impression which I got from what I read in the newspapers was that he said that it was quite true that all these things had happened out there but, in view of the fact that things are gradually improving, that it would be better if we let sleeping dogs lie. That is all right if it is nothing to do with ourselves, but when it includes such problems as compensation for our subjects and what happened to people from Rhodesia—in which, no doubt, the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations will be interested, for I shall refer to several Rhodesians in this speech—it is a different matter. There is also the question whether inquiries should be held, if British subjects have been killed or have had their properties taken from them. I feel that my hon. Friend should bear this in mind in future.

Just after I left Katanga and when I got back to Rhodesia I was horrified to read in the newspapers that the Lord Privy Seal had stated that he was about to arrange for the British Government to invest in bonds for the United Nations. That was just when one had heard about British subjects having their property taken from them in Katanga. The Consul had made application to the United Nations on that score and, as I understand it, the answer had been that the United Nations said that the war in Katanga is not their war, that the war in the Congo is not their war, and that therefore they are in no way responsible. I hope that my hon. Friend will follow that point up. If they are in no way responsible, who is responsible? If we are to give British money to help the United Nations, presumably because everybody in the Congo is almost bankrupt, and to help them to carry on there, surely we ought first of all to see that British subjects who have suffered there are compensated in some form or another.

In order not to keep the House too long I will take only one case. This is the case of an old lady named Mrs. Van Damme, who is about 72 years of age. She is a British subject. She married a Belgian officer who was in Britain in the First World War. She went out to Katanga and settled there with him. He is long since dead. She has been living there by herself in a small house. Her only means of support were the vegetables and things she sold in the neighbourhood, but the house was her own.

Whilst I was out there Lord Russell of Liverpool was there making a study of the atrocities committed by the United Nations in that part of the world. This is what he has told me about what he has found out about Mrs. Van Damme. It is much the same as I heard when I was there. Lord Russell says: I had a long talk to her while I was in Elisabethville and the following is a short summary of what she told me. On the 15th December"— this is only last December— there had been a good deal of indiscriminate shelling of the town and Monsieur Derriks, who lived next door, came down to see her about 5.15 p.m. to see that she was all right and to tell her that if she was frightened to sleep in her own house she was welcome to go to his house at any time. The shelling increased so much that she was afraid to go out of doors and spent all night lying under her bed. The next day she remained indoors but was very worried because she had not seen M. Derriks who used to pass her house practically every morning. In a few minutes I will tell the House what happened to poor M. Derriks.

Lord Russell continues: The firing went on most of the day and on Monday the 18th she decided that it was too dangerous to remain where she was and she quickly packed some of her clothes, intend ing to leave her house and find shelter somewhere else. Just as she was about to leave five Ethiopians came up the garden path. She tried to prevent them entering the house but they forced their way in. One of them slapped her several times on the face and another one kicked her. They then wantonly broke everything in the house and after about half an hour they left. As soon as they hid gone Mrs. Van Damme left her house and left in the direction of Elisabethville. On the way she was found by the head of the Red Cross Organisation there. She is now living in a convent school next door to the Clinique Reine Elisabeth. That is what Lord Russell found out.

I also understand that since then the British Consul, who has been looking after her, has offered her free passage back to England, to which the poor old lady not unnaturally has replied, "It is all very fine to offer me a passage back to England, but what am I going to do when I get back to England—live on public assistance? I am not accustomed to the English climate any longer. I have a perfectly good house in Elisabethville. If it were not for the United Nations"—she is absolutely right about this—"everything would be perfectly orderly in Elisabethville. Katanga under Tshombe is peaceful. It is only these United Nations people who are moving in who are causing all this trouble. I want to stay here ".

The British Government could do something more about this. A few days ago I received a letter on this subject from the Minister of State in which he says: I have received a report from our Consul in Elisabethville about her.… Most of its contents"— that is, the contents of her house— were taken, although the house itself was not seriously damaged.… It is not possible definitely to establish who was responsible for this vandalism. Her Majesty's Consul has done his best to assist her and has made representations to the United Nations authorities about her case". Why is it not possible to establish responsibility? Lord Russell and others were able to find out that undoubtedly the Ethiopians had done this. They, amongst others, are United Nations troops. Therefore, it would be reasonable that there should be some kind of inquiry on these subjects. After all, we must remember that there are different types of United Nations troops in this one town.

I suppose I am a little locally minded, but Elisabethville is about the same size as my own constituency of Brighton. At one end of Elisabethville there are some 30,000 Baluba tribesmen, whom the United Nations have pushed into the equivalent of a concentration camp. They are dying at the rate of about forty a week and they are eating each other at the rate of about two or three a day. That is only one side of the town. At the other side and in the middle there are the Swedes, Ethiopians, Indians, Ghanaians and the Irish. One does not know what any of them will do at any moment. In another corner of the town, there are Mr. Tshombe and his Government. It is difficult for any form of order to remain in a town like that.

The town is only about 50 or 60 miles from the Rhodesian border, the same distance as from London to Brighton, and here the Baluba are eating each other. Practically nothing is being done about it because the heads of the different units—the Indians, the Ghanaians, the Ethiopians, the Irish and the Swedes—are in control of their own people. Therefore, it is difficult to find who can be made responsible. The United Nations should be responsible, but they seem to have no super-organisation over these people.

Sir Roy Welensky has tried to find out how far we can go beyond the United Nations. Can we go to The Hague? The answer would seem to be "No" and that nothing can be done about these people. They are like Frankensteins who are not being stopped and nothing can be done, whereas British subjects can be molested and attacked.

There is not only the one person to whom I have referred, but there are a number of Northern Rhodesians. I have the names of three of them who were all murdered by the Indians in the middle of December. We have just had a report—it has appeared only in the last three or four days—signed by forty-six doctors from Elisabethville which has been sent to the United Nations and also to the Red Cross at Geneva. It gives details of what happened. It is in French, so I will not go into too many details.

The report states, however, that a young Italian, his cousin, his chauffeur and eight workers were travelling from Northern Rhodesia when they were attacked. No fighting was going on between the United Nations and the Katangan so-called mercenaries. These people were calmly travelling on their own when they were attacked by the Indians. A long terrible and brutal description is given of what happened to them all. The Indian mercenaries advanced and shot down at close range all the workers, who were trying to hide in the ditches. The three Northern Rhodesian British subjects to whom I have referred were found two days afterwards. The one and only remaining person who is still alive is a gentleman called Mr. Tshifunda, who is in hospital at the Clinique Reine Elisabeth. I should like my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary to take steps to find out from him exactly what happened and to let us know what can be done for the families and relations of these people.

I have spoken about M. Derriks. who was looking after Mrs. Van Damme and who, incidentally, had the O.B.E. and has always been friendly towards us. He was a director of the Union Minière mines and was aged 60. He was sitting in his house next door to Mrs. Van Damme when the Ethiopians came in. For no reason, they shot him dead straight away. His mother, aged 84, was with him and was equally mutilated and beaten to death. These are the things that are happening all through that part of the world. Very few people know about it and I hope that this report, which is extremely detailed, will be widely read in this country.

We are sending money to the United Nations, presumably to help them to carry on their fighting in Katanga and to do all that they can, as far as one can see, to destroy the one and only Government there which is multiracial, which is interested in linking up with Rhodesia and which desires to keep the Europeans there. I hope that something can be done, but firstly for the British subjects who are suffering.

10.25 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Peter Thomas)

In the course of his speech my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Sir W. Teeling) referred a great deal to the behaviour and discipline of the United Nations troops in the Congo. I dealt with that matter at some length in the Adjournment debate last Friday and, if my hon. Friend wild forgive me, I will concentrate in my reply tonight on the matter which is the subject of the Adjournment, namely, compensation for British subjects for losses and damage that they have suffered as a result of activities in Katanga. I must say, first, how much we greatly deplore the damage occasioned to the British subjeots he mentioned and also how much we regret the deaths that have taken place.

If I can deal with the damage caused to property and the pillage that has taken place, Her Majesty's Consul has kept us fully informed on this matter and has reported that 14 British subjects have had their properties pillaged. It is, however, by no means certain who was responsible in each case. Not only was Elisabethville fought over by United Nations troops and the Katanga gendarmerie, but there was also the complicating factor of the Baluba refugee camp.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, this large refugee camp is sited just outside Elisabethville and contains about 45,000 Baluba tribesmen. As he knows, they live in conditions of the most appalling squalor and during the hostilities hundreds of these refugees left the camp and roamed through the residential centres, and a number of the acts of pillage are believed to have been committed by them.

In addition to properties of British subjects which have been pillaged, the owners of six British properties reported that their properties had been occupied by United Nations troops. Her Majesty's Consul has reported that these houses are not in a good state, but it is not clear what proportion of the damage was received during the fighting or during their later occupation by United Nations forces. That is the situation regarding property.

British subjects in Elisabethville consist of a large number of Rhodesian Africans. In addition, there were 62 British subjects of European origin living there at 1st December. Of the latter, one, a Mrs. Dyer, was killed by mortar fire, 32 had left by mid-January, three had expressed an intention of leaving and the remainder—including the majority of the Rhodesian Africans—appeared to be prepared to carry on unless matters got a great deal worse.

Any British subject who so desires is, of course, eligible for repatriation with the assistance of Her Majesty's Consul. Since July, 1960, between 50 and 60 British subjects have, in fact, been repatriated. My hon. Friend mentioned the death of certain Northern Rhodesians. We have only just heard about this from the same source as my hon. Friend; the letter which was sent to the International Red Cross. That body is making inquiries about the contents of that letter. The report covers events between 13th September and 31st December and lists cases of civilians who have suffered as a result of the hostilities. Among them are three Northern Rhodesian Africans who were road workers domiciled for a long time in Katanga. The actual circumstances surrounding this case are not absolutely clear, but it seems that they must have got caught between the firing of opposite forces in Elisabethville.

We have asked the Consul there to forward details of the circumstances of this tragic incident and a similar request has been made to the Consul in Salisbury, but no further information is available. Before dealing with the individual cases mentioned by my hon. Friend, I shall say a word about the general position regarding such losses. Dependent upon the facts of each case there appear to be three parties against whom claims might lie for damage which has taken place in Katanga. By this I mean all Katanga, including the Northern part, which is now under central Government administration. These three parties are the Central Govern- ment, the Provincial Government, and the United Nations.

With this in mind, Her Majesty's Government have been looking into the various reports by British subjects who have suffered damage or injury during the fighting. In cases where United Nations responsibility appears to be established, I certainly see no reason why the claims should not be taken up with them by the persons concerned. On the other hand, evidence in some incidents may indicate responsibility of the Katanga provincial authorities or of the Congolese Central Government. Here, again, appropriate action may, if considered useful, be taken. The first thing is to get in the statements of loss or damage and then to set about examining them.

Her Majesty's Consul reports that a large number of claims have already been submitted to the United Nations in Elisabethville and that they are still coming in. These are not, of course, all from British subjects. Indeed, I would expect claims from British subjects to be very much in a minority.

United Nations claims officers are to be established in Elisabethville, where the first officer should by now have arrived. The investigation of claims will take many weeks. Meanwhile, Her Majesty's Ambassador at Leopoldville and Her Majesty's Consul in Elisabethville were instructed some time ago to assist British subjects to record their losses, if they so wished, on a standard form. These forms do not, of course, guarantee that on the basis of the information provided Her Majesty's Government will be able or willing to put forward a claim against any party. The purpose is merely to record exact details of the alleged loss so that our representatives can consider whether further action will be possible. Each case will have to be investigated on its merits, and these inquiries may well take some time. Completed record forms covering eleven cases have, as I have said, now been received and these are being carefully examined.

My hon. Friend mentioned the case of Mrs. Van Damme, and I would like to say what has been- done to help her. As my hon. Friend says, this lady is over 70 years of age. She has a house in the neighbourhood of the Lido Hotel which was occupied by United Nations troops on or about 16th December. These troops were then counter-attacked and, according to their statement, were sniped at from houses in the area.

Mrs. Van Damme was evicted from her house and was obliged to walk barefoot for nearly half a mile along a lonely dirt road up towards the town centre. The Red Cross has installed Mrs. Van Damme in the Institut Marie José, a large boarding school for European and African girls where a refugee centre, then sheltering about 600 people, had been set up.

As soon as movement round the town was possible, two members of the Consulate staff visited Mrs. Van Damme and 12 other British subjects at the Institut on 20th December Mrs. Van Damme was then wearing a pair of borrowed tennis shoes and a thin cotton dress, which constituted her entire wardrobe.

Two days later, three members of the Consulate went to the Institut and took the British refugees extra food and a mackintosh, dresses, shoes, a wool jacket and jersey suit and dressing gown for Mrs. Van Damme. The British Vice-Consul visited Mrs. Van Damme several times during the fortnight after Christmas. The Red Cross declined to take her back to see her house, however, as the area was still in the zone of occupation, and, therefore, considered dangerous.

On the afternoon of 7th January, two members of the Consulate staff accompanied Mrs. Van Damme to the local United Nations headquarters and obtained a pass to visit the colonel in charge of the zone comprising her property. Permission was eventually given to visit her house. Her property, as described by my right hon. Friend, consists of about 15 acres of what was valuable land on which Mrs. Van Damme's late husband had built a small house.

The site is attractive and near the best residential quarter of Elisabethville. Beyond a few windows broken by rifle fire there was no sign of structural damage due to mortars or rockets and the doors were intact, but the interior of the house was in a state of considerable confusion. Most of the linen, cutlery, china and kitchen utensils had disappeared, a door had been wrenched off a wardrobe in a bedroom and electrical fittings torn out of the walls.

The two members of the Consulate worked with Mrs. Van Damme, who was very distressed at finding her house in such a state, for almost two hours, and finally salvaged some of her property which they took to the Institut. Before leaving the house, Mrs. Van Damme found that she had lost the remaining set of her keys, so, after locking her bedroom door, she was obliged to leave the other doors open. A former houseboy came later and nailed a piece of wood across the front door.

A secretary at the Consulate helped Mrs. Van Damme compile a list of articles taken from her house and typed it for her. This she sent to the State Attorney and the United Nations Mrs. Van Damme was allowed to stay on at the Institut when the other refugees left, and has given help with the smaller children in return for her keep.

On 17th January Mrs. Van Damme heard that United Nations soldiers had been seen entering her house and that some corrugated iron from the roof was missing. She asked a member of the Consulate whether another visit to her House could be arranged. She also asked whether the local United Nations commander might not be requested to put it out of bounds for his men.

Representations were accordingly made to the United Nations. They replied that investigations were not yet completed and that it remained to be seen whether boarding-up of the house would be any protection. The United Nations added that the place was not in the United Nations occupied zone but in a kind of no man's land.

On 23rd January a van was put at Mrs. Van Damme's disposal to collect some of her furniture, which was still more or less intact. A British subject, who held a pass from the United Nations commander, accompanied two members of the Consular staff to the Colonel in charge of the Lido zone on 26th January. When they arrived at Mrs. Van Damme's house, the piece of wood barring the front door had been sawn through and the bedroom door forced open with a pickaxe, which was still lying by it. Some corrugated iron had been taken from the workshop and more kitchen utensils were missing.

Once she feels that her house is reasonably secure, Mrs. Van Damme wishes to leave for England. When Her Majesty's Consul discussed her case very recently with the responsible United Nations officer, he was told that there was no guarantee that she would receive satisfaction. I can only express the hope that in the end her claim will be satisfied and I can assure the House that Her Majesty's Consul will continue to give all assistance to this unfortunate lady.

In addition to the case of Mrs. Van Damme, the case of Mr. Burton has also been drawn to the attention of the United Nations in writing by Her Majesty's Consul in Elisabethville. Mr. Burton, a British subject, is the Managing Director of the Société du Génie Civil, in Katanga, whose private house was looted after it had been evacuated, on United Nations instructions, when it came into the line of fire during last December's fighting.

Her Majesty's Consul has now presented four other cases to the officer in charge of the United Nations administration in Elisabethville. These are the cases of Mr. Spurgin, a South African for whose interests as a British subject we are at present responsible; Mr. Pitchen; Mrs. Bewsher and Mrs. Lejeune, all of whose houses were pillaged.

In all, record forms have been completed for 11 cases, including those I have mentioned. In about half of these cases, however, the responsibility for the pillage is not clear. In several, both Baluba tribesmen and United Nations troops are mentioned as the perpetrators, while in once case the Katanga gendarmerie are held responsible.

Record forms in three other cases involving British subjects are being studied by Her Majesty's Consul. One of these may prove too unsubstantiated to be presentable, since it amounts to no more than buglary by unidentified persons during the period of hostilities.

Considerable work is, of course, involved in interviewing claimants and reducing their statements to coherent form, and this has taken time. Only with the gradual return of security has it become possible to make investigations and for proprietors to determine the extent of their losses. In some cases the persons involved have left the country and have not yet returned.

Finally, my hon. Friend has suggested that there is a relationship between Her Majesty's Government's decision to purchase United Nations bonds and the question of compensation for British subjects who may have suffered losses due to United Nations actions in Katanga.

In the first place, as I have stated, we are, on receipt of proof, perfectly prepared to assist claimants against the United Nations; secondly, the responsibility for all these cases of pillaging has not yet been fully determined; and, thirdly, much as we deplore any possibility that these losses may have been due to actions by the United Nations forces, we do not believe that the interests of British subjects on the spot would be served either by refusing to buy bonds or by a withdrawal of the United Nations from the Congo which might be the effect of a failure of the bond issue.

A complete abandonment by the United Nations of the Congo, leading to possible civil war between the various contending factions, would constitute, I would suggest, a very grave threat to British residents both in Katanga and in other parts of the country.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)

Get them out of Katanga.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.