HC Deb 15 June 1964 vol 696 cc937-43
The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will make a statement on the situation in British Guiana.

I told the House last week that during the four months' sugar strike in British Guiana there had been numerous acts of inter-racial strife, including arson, murder and other forms of lawlessness, and that about 40 people had lost their lives and between 400 and 500 had been injured.

Against this background of violence and fear, the killing of Mr. Arthur Abraham, a senior Guianese civil servant, and seven of his children, on Friday morning, created an explosive situation.

In order to forestall further acts of terrorism, which he had reason to believe were planned, the Governor considered it urgently necessary to detain a number of persons. I authorised him to assume the necessary powers under the British Guiana (Emergency Provisions) Order 1964, which was made on 29th May in anticipation of a possible deterioration in the situation. This Order confers upon the Governor the right to exercise emergency powers at his own discretion instead of, as previously, on the advice of Guianese Ministers.

The Governor ordered a number of arrests to be made on Saturday morning. These include the following members of the Legislative Assembly: Mr. Brindley Benn (Deputy Premier); Mr. Moses Bhagwan (Chairman of the Youth Organisation of the People's Progressive Party); Mr. Harry Lall (President of the Guyana Agricultural Workers' Union); Mr. R. J. Jordan (a member of the People's National Congress); and Mr. Victor Downer (member of the People's Progressive Party).

Strong security measures were taken to prevent an outbreak of violence during the funeral of the Abraham family, and despite huge crowds this took place peacefully.

Over the weekend there have been three further incidents in which two Africans and one Indian were killed. Nevertheless, the situation is now generally quiet throughout the country; and there are signs that the mass of ordinary people welcome the decision to take firm action to quell terrorism.

I shall continue to keep the House informed.

Mr. Bottomley

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that none of us on this side of the House—and, I am sure, no one in the House as a whole—would wish to see this bitterness or racial conflict extended. On the other hand, the Government must surely ensure that fairness is shown. With this end in view, has the right hon. Gentleman considered appointing a tribunal to consider the cases?

Does he also recollect that, in the debate on the British Guiana Order in Council, on 27th April last, I questioned whether the action that the Government were then about to take would help to bring racial conflict to an end and that I received an affirmative reply? I am bound to say now that it does not look as though the Government's policy is succeeding.

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider raising this whole question at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting? After all, that meeting will be multiracial and perhaps pressure from the Commonwealth Prime Ministers jointly would have greater effect than Her Majesty's Government have had in British Guiana.

Mr. Sandys

A tribunal which reviews cases of people who have been detained already exists under the Constitution. I see no object in setting up a commission of inquiry into the matter. The painful facts are only too well known and I do not think that such an inquiry would serve any purpose.

I must correct the right hon. Gentleman on one point. He says that I told the House in our recent debate that my policy would end racial conflict. What I did do was to make it clear, quite frankly, that the purpose of this change in the method of election—the introduction of proportional representation—was deliberately designed to try to create a situation in which the racial parties would be obliged to get together and form a coalition, which we had all of us been unable to persuade them to do hitherto.

The right hon. Gentleman suggests referring this matter to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers. I think it highly unlikely that, in the few hours which they have available for their discussions, they could find a solution to a problem which so many others, over a period of years, have tried in vain to solve.

Sir H. Oakshott

Is it not a fact that Dr. Jagan has asserted that the action that has been taken is an infringement of fundamental rights? This assertion has been repeated in this country. Can it possibly be said, in the light of what has happened, that there is any truth in it?

Mr. Sandys

This assertion has been much publicised and I want to make the position clear. Article 29 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights provides that the rights of the individual may be subject to limitations in the interests of public order. The European Convention of Human Rights and practically all modern constitutions—including that of British Guiana—also provide for the right of detention without trial in a state of emergency.

I must also point out that the right to detain without trial was included in the emergency powers assumed by Dr. Jagan and his Government in the emergencies declared by them in 1962 and 1963.

Mr. Grimond

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be universal horror at the killing of Mr. Abraham and seven of his children? Is he further aware that there will be widespread sympathy with the Governor in the situation in which he has been placed? Is it not the case that, with the detention of a senior member of the British Guiana Government, the future of that country is now exceedingly dark?

As the right hon. Gentleman has said that this is not a responsibility which brings either advantage or prestige to Britain, will he consider consulting other members of the Commonwealth—not necessarily the Prime Minister's meeting—to see whether they could not be associated in finding a solution?

Mr. Sandys

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's references to the Governor. I think that the Governor has an extremely difficult task and needs all our support and encouragement.

The right hon. Gentleman suggests consulting other members of the Commonwealth independently, perhaps, of the Prime Minister's meeting. There have, of course, already been a number of efforts.

There was the good will mission—so called—from Ghana which went to British Guiana to try to help, but which was unsuccessful. The Prime Ministers of Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica had a meeting with Dr. Jagan, Dr. Burnham and Mr. D'Agviar, but that also came to nothing. Then Dr. Eric Williams, the Prime Minister of Trinidad, made an individual attempt the other day to try to bring about some agreement between them and that has so far also failed. But if the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) has any further suggestions, I would be glad to consider them. Those who are in the best position to help in this matter have tried their hand and have so far been unsuccessful.

Mr. Gardner

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in that potentially great country, there is a considerable number of people of moderate and sensible opinion? Will he do all in his power immediately to enlist their support and help to try to resolve this tragic situation?

Mr. Sandys

I have no doubt that the great majority of the people of that unhappy country do deplore and loathe the state of racial hatred which is being intensified and encouraged there. But, as everyone knows, it is often difficult for the rank and file of the population to act independently of their leaders.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we all deplore this violence and hope that the steps that have been taken will bring peace and quiet to that country, which is torn by racial hatred?

Has the right hon. Gentleman now changed his mind? Is he now convinced that no constitutional device will bring peace to British Guiana unless there is the will on both sides to work it? Since that will is not yet forthcoming, and it is clear that the elections which he thought would be held shortly cannot possibly take place in this situation, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the suggestion, made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. Bottomley) and me, that there would be some advantage in putting this to the Prime Ministers' meeting?

Let us be frank about his matter. This is a racial conflict between Africans and Indians in British Guiana. Prime Ministers representing both African nations and Indian, wielding great influence, will be here. Surely it would be worth another attempt to try to get these two races and their leaders in British Guiana together to bring peace to the country.

Mr. Sandys

I think that I have already, in reply to two questions, dealt with that point concerning the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting, although I entirely appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety. The right hon. Gentleman also referred to a constitutional change. Of course, to make a success of any constitution one needs the co-operation of the population as a whole, but I respectfully point out that during our recent debate, although many people — including myself — expressed doubts as to whether the policy we were pursuing would necessarily produce the results we all hoped for, no one—certainly not the Front Bench opposite-produced any alternative policy.

Mr. Wall

As, for several years, every effort has been made to make democracy work in British Guiana, will my right hon. Friend now consider whether, in the interests of the people, the Constitution should be suspended?

Mr. Sandys

That, of course, is the extreme step and one which I want to avoid if it is not absolutely essential.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

Can the Secretary of State tell us whether Dr. Jagan has agreed to carry on his Government in the new circumstances? Can the right hon. Gentleman give us some further clarification about the power of detention without trial? I have studied the Order in Council of 29th May, but I cannot find it there.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take it from this side of the House that we have the greatest sympathy for the Abrahams family concerning the atrocity against it and that we wish to do everything to help the Governor to get the political leaders together to seek a reconciliation between the races?

Mr. Sandys

As I explained earlier, the power to detain is the same power which was taken by Dr. Jagan's Government in the emergency regulations which they made last year and the year before. On this occasion they did not take those powers, although the Governor advised that they should. It was because those powers were not available to him on the advice of the Ministers of the British Guiana Government that the Governor was obliged to ask me for authority to assume these powers himself.

Mr. F. M. Bennett

A tribute has been paid to the Governor, but will my right hon. Friend accept the understanding of the entire House in the extremely onerous problems and difficult decisions in which he is now placed, due not in any way to the seeking of this country?

As regards the arrest of the political leaders, what other attitude could my right hon. Friend possibly have adopted towards individuals who were advocating and supporting measures of violence and intimidation which they in their position ought to have been suppressing?

Mr. Bottomley

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether Dr. Jagan intends to carry on as Prime Minister?

Mr. Sandys

The right hon. Gentleman will have to ask him.

Mr. Reynolds

The right hon. Gentleman has told us that a member of the Government of British Guiana and other leading politicians have been arrested. Is he aware that if we follow normal precedent it is quite possible, whatever these people may or may not have done, that in due course they will be members of an independent government of that country? Will he, therefore, investigate some of the reports that these men were publicly handcuffed and walked across an aerodrome, and have now been deported to a penal prison colony, although they have not been tried for anything and presumably will not be tried? Will he ensure that they are not kept in a penal prison colony?

As they are elected members of an assembly, does he not agree that they ought not to be publicly humiliated by being handcuffed and walked across an aerodrome, whatever may be the reason for holding them without trial, which one does not question at the moment?

Mr. Sandys

There is no desire to humiliate anybody. They are detained for the sake of public safety and not to be humiliated.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot pursue this matter without a Question before the House.