HC Deb 24 April 1963 vol 676 cc223-8
The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Edward Heath)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the situation in Laos.

Integration of the three rival armies was a central feature of the Geneva settlement, and pending such action there is an obligation on each party to desist from trying to secure an advantage by recourse to arms. However, Left-wing forces, probably with North Vietnamese support, have been driving the neutralist supporters of the Prime Minister out of their positions in the Plain des Jarres. Thus, the whole settlement has been put in jeopardy. This must concern us both as signatories to the agreement and because of my noble Friend's responsibilities as co-Chairman of the Laos Conference.

Our Ambassador in Laos, with the Soviet Ambassador's co-operation, has supported the efforts of the Prime Minister of Laos to halt the fighting, to get the contending leaders to agree, and to restore the situation. He has also been working closely with the International Control Commission to secure the right of the Commission to travel anywhere in the country and to maintain a presence wherever this is necessary to fulfil the terms of the agreement.

My noble Friend has discussed these matters with Mr. Gromyko, as Soviet co-Chairman. Mr. Gromyko failed to agree to my noble Friend's proposals for joint action and has chosen to publish his own counter-proposals. In view of Mr. Gromyko's action, copies of the full exchanges have been placed in the Vote Office and released to the Press here.

The Soviet co-Chairman insisted on including in his draft message to the Government of Laos one-sided allegations against the American Government which my noble Friend regarded as unsubstantiated. Notwithstanding this, a large measure of agreement was reached as to what might be done and, although no action by the co-Chairmen is now possible, our Ambassador in Laos has been told to draw the attention of the Government of Laos and the Control Commission to the common views expressed in these exchanges.

A new truce now seems to have halted fighting on the spot. I hope that, this time, the truce will hold. I also trust that it will be generally accepted that the Commission should be present to deter any renewal of fighting and should exercise its authority to restore the situation which prevailed before the recent Pathet Lao advances.

Action in this respect will be a test of the good faith of all parties in Laos and also of the other signatories of the Geneva agreement.

In our view, these dangerous developments have not resulted from any defect in the agreement itself. This clearly provides for what should be done if such developments occur, and for the proper investigation of accusations that there has been foreign interference in Laos.

The next few days should show whether the settlement is to be allowed to survive or not. Mr. Averell Harriman, in discussions yesterday with my noble Friend, expressed the unwavering support of the United States for the Geneva settlement for an independent unaligned Laos. I am sure that the whole House will agree that it would be most harmful if this outstanding example of the ability of East and West to reach a constructive solution to their problems by negotiation were to fail.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that anything that Her Majesty's Government can do to maintain the non-aligned position of Laos will receive the very general support of hon. Members on both sides of the House? It is of extreme importance to the general balance between East and West in the world that this particular status quo should be preserved. Is he aware, however, that his flat statement that no action by the co-Chairmen is now possible is rather disturbing?

We regret that the Russians have unilaterally published their side of the exchange. None the less, as his statement showed that considerable progress has been made in agreement with the Russians—and it is extremely important that we should not close our minds, as seemed to be implied in his statement, to the achievement of real co-operation between us on Laos, because this is one part of the world where we have a measure of common interest—could the right hon. Gentleman say what he thinks about the proposal that the International Control Commission should—and I think that this is implied in his statement— send observers to police the present rather temporary truce in order to try to make it stick, because this is the first great need?

Mr. Heath

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's opening remarks about the views of the House as a whole towards the need for maintaining the cease-fire in this part of the world, the unaligned State of Laos, and the position between East and West.

On the question of joint action by the co-Chairmen, my noble Friend is, of course, anxious that we should be able to take such action. In this particular case it was not possible to reach agreement, and why my noble Friend regrets the publication of these documents is that in the normal way one would have continued through the diplomatic channels to try to reach agreement about the contents of the notes, which we would have sent to the Government of Laos.

I think that I can reply to the right hon. Gentleman's point by saying that my noble Friend would hope to be able to take joint action with the Soviet Foreign Minister, if we can get agreement on it. I am also in agreement with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the need to station members of the International Control Commission on the spot in the areas of the truce so that we can have reports from them on the state of affairs there and so that they can use their authority to maintain the truce.

Mr. Mendelson

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that the past successes of Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Soviet Union in creating an atmosphere of agreement over Laos are, perhaps, the most important potential casualty in this dangerous situation? Could the right hon. Gentleman at least make a preliminary statement about the series of murders which have recently occurred in Laos, in which a number of people who are Left wing of the centre, which the Prime Minister there represents, have been murdered in an organised fashion? Does this not remind him of the series of murders which occurred in China, where the centre was deliberately eleminated by the Right wing in order to impose dictatorship later on, but which led to the opposite result? Would the Lord Privy Seal not consider, with the Soviet Government, making an investigation of these murders so that there might be a better base for joint action by the co-Chairmen?

Mr. Heath

We have, of course, deplored the murders for political reasons which have taken place in Laos recently; and there have been a number of them. But I would not agree with the hon. Member's analysis of the political position of those who have been the casualties of these political assassinations. We have done our utmost to impress on all the parties in Laos that they should bring to an end this form of political assassination.

Mr. A. Henderson

Can the right hon. Gentleman say which of the authorities in Laos prevented members of the Control Commission from visiting the areas in which hostilities have been resumed and thereby made it impossible for them to check on what was happening? Would it be worth while considering inviting or arranging for representatives of the co-Chairmen—that is, Soviet and British representatives—to be associated with the Control Commission in supervising what he taking place in central Laos?

Mr. Heath

It is Prince Souphan-nouvong and members of the Pathet Lao who have objected to the Control Commission carrying out its duties under the Geneva settlement.

The British and Soviet ambassadors have been playing their part in remaining in close contact with the members of the Control Commission when there have been discussions between the various parties in Laos about the truce and the activities of the Commission. The Control Commission has all the facilities necessary to carry out those activities—it has all the powers under the Geneva settlement to do it—provided that the parties in Laos themselves will agree to the Commission moving about the country.

Mr. Brockway

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that all of us want to see a neutralist solution to this problem? Is it not a fact that in the exchange of letters with Mr. Gromyko, he actually accepted the action proposed by Her Majesty's Government but had that unfortunate addendum, which was very one-sided? Is not the action more important than the expression of opinion in the addendum? In view of the psychological background which there is in Laos because of the previous American support of the Rightist element to secure a solution of this problem, would it not be much better now to call in the United Nations, and particularly U Thant, who has such a reputation in Asia?

Mr. Heath

As I said in my statement, if hon. Members look at the copies of the exchange of correspondence which have been placed in the Vote Office they will see that there is a considerable amount of general agreement, as the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) said, about the action to be taken. That is the reason why we have drawn the attention of the Prime Minister and the Government of Laos and of the International Control Commission to the common parts of the exchange of correspondence and have expressed the hope that they will act on those.

I do not think that it is correct to say that Mr. Gromyko accepted all our proposals. Nevertheless, there is a considerable amount of common agreement. I do not think that it would be right now to call in the United Nations or its Secre- tary-General. The provisions of the Geneva settlement can be carried out if there is good faith between the three parties involved in the Government of Laos; and it is that which we are trying to achieve now.

Mr. Thorpe

The Lord Privy Seal has spoken about co-operation between the Soviet and British Ambassadors. Can he say what the effect of Mr. Gromyko's counter-proposals is to vitiate that co-operation, particularly in regard to the freedom of movement of the Control Commission and the right of access to which the right hon. Gentleman referred? Is this a matter on which there is still co-operation and agreement between the two ambassadors?

Mr. Heath

We hope that it will not vitiate future co-operation, but so far we have not had any experience since the publication of the correspondence.

Mr. Gordon Walker

I should like to ask the Lord Privy Seal a point of fact. Has the Soviet Union yet expressed itself in agreement with the idea of representatives or observers of the International Commission going to the area of trouble, or has not that idea yet been raised with the Soviet Government?

Mr. Heath

The position is that the International Control Commission can go to the area, either at the request of the Government of Laos—but that, of course, is being prevented by the Pathet Lao members of the Government—or on its own initiative. The position at the moment is that the Soviet co-Chairman has not joined with us in asking the Commission to carry out these activities.

Sir C. Osborne

When it comes to fighting, why is it that the Communists always seem to win? Is it that they are getting better arms from their side than the others are getting from ours?

Mr. Heath

As I mentioned in the earlier part of my statement, the indications are that the Pathet Lao forces are receiving support from the North Vietnamese.