HC Deb 20 December 1967 vol 756 cc1265-7
Mr. Iain Lloyd (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the interception of the French tanker "Artois" by a frigate of the Royal Navy off Beira.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

Yesterday afternoon the frigate H.M.S. "Minerva", while on patrol off Beira, intercepted the French tanker "Artois" approaching Beira. The CO. "Minerva" requested the tanker to stop so that he could ascertain whether or not her passage was in breach of the United Nations Security Council resolution of 9th April, 1966.

The "Artois" refused to comply with this request. "Minerva" then signalled, "Stop or I will fire". This was also disregarded. "Minerva" then put a shot across the tanker's bows. The tanker still failed to stop and went on to enter the port.

Meanwhile, "Minerva" had communicated with the Ministry of Defence and was told that, on the basis of information available in London, the "Artois" was not carrying oil for Rhodesia and was not, therefore, in breach of the United Nation resolution. H.M.S. "Minerva" accordingly took no further action.

Mr. Lloyd

Since the resolution of the gravest issues may well turn on the exercise of this discretion, and since the nation is entitled to know, will the right hon. Gentleman state quite unequivocally what instructions the Government have given to Her Majesty's ships in this area—first, in the event of intercepted ships not stopping, and, secondly, in the event of intercepted ships being escorted either by sea or by air? Finally, can the right hon. Gentleman give both the House and the country some reassurance that the ultimate depths of folly have now been plumbed?

Mr. Healey

I cannot give details of the precise instructions, nor would I ever do so in the case of instructions issued to commanders of Her Majesty's forces; but the instructions are designed to ensure that the United Kingdom meets its obligations under the Security Council resolution.

In this respect, as the House may know, the Security Council resolution, referring to Article 42, provides: Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take any such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Mr. John Lee

Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of this side of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—on the sensible expenditure of the defence budget for a change? Can we take this to be indicative of a tougher policy on Rhodesia?

Mr. Healey

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and to my other hon. Friends who cheered, for recognising the value of maritime forces in the pursuit of political objectives.

Mr. Powell

What is the point of a naval patrol to stop tankers from going to Beira if the naval patrol cannot stop the tankers from going to Beira?

Mr. Healey

The naval patrol could perfectly well have stopped this tanker. If the right hon. Gentleman accepts that there is any merit whatever in the supplementary question of his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, Langstone (Mr. Ian Lloyd), he will recognise that the captain of a ship on patrol must exercise the discretion he is given in deciding whether or not he will fire.

Since the captain had information that the ship was carrying gas oil, a decision to fire would have been a very difficult one in the circumstances. However, the House and the world should be under no illusion that, if the captain had decided that it was necessary to fire, he would have been fully in accordance with international law in doing so.

Mr. Whitaker

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it is the French company which owns this tanker which is supplying all the oil through Mozambique to Ian Smith? What does he intend to do to stop this company from continuing to violate United Nations sanctions?

Mr. Healey

That question is not for me. I understand that a question relating to this is already on the Order Paper.

Mr. Lubbock

How can the Secretary of State be absolutely certain that this cargo of oil was not destined for the Smith régime? Will he make representations in the United Nations through the Security Council to ensure that the sanctions on which the Security Council decided are not breached by the French Government or by French companies?

Mr. Healey

I recognise that hon. Members on both side of the House will feel that a breach of a mandatory resolution of the Security Council by a member of the United Nations is a very serious matter; but taking up that matter, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, is not for me as Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Bellenger

As we, or the Royal Navy, are presumably acting as agent of the U.N., would it not be advisable to scrap the British flag on ships of the Royal Navy engaged on this patrol and fly the United Nations flag?

Mr. Healey

No, I do not think so. I think that to set such a precedent might well be very unpopular with many of our forces operating with the United Nations in many parts of the world.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

Does the Secretary of State think that it is useful to prolong the Beira patrol now after what has happened, and, if so, for how long?

Mr. Healey

Yes. I certainly believe that it is not only useful but necessary to obey a mandatory resolution of the United Nations Security Council.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. George Brown. Statement.