HC Deb 02 July 1968 vol 767 cc1307-15
The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 7, 8, 12, 16, 21, 22, 24 and 25 together.

Since I made my statement in the House on 26th June, after the return of my noble Friend Lord Shepherd from Nigeria, we have taken the following action to aid a settlement of this unhappy war.

At our request, Mr. Arnold Smith has taken steps to convey to the Biafran authorities that in the light of my noble Friend's discussions in Lagos, the opening of direct informal discussions between the two parties in London with a view to the reconvening of the Kampala peace talks are, in our view, possible and could be productive.

In addition to Mr. Smith's action, Lord Shepherd has spoken yesterday to Mr. Kogbara, who was associated with Sir Louis Mbanefo in his earlier talks and urged upon him the need for a representative of Colonel Ojukwu to come to London as soon as possible in pursuance of the undertaking given by Sir Louis.

I have accordingly read with regret— which I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will share—the reports of Colonel Ojukwu's speech on Sunday at Owerri. I hope that this speech does not mean that he has turned his back on the attempt to secure a return to the negotiating table: in that event, the responsibility he would incur would be grave indeed.

On the question of our arms policy, I have nothing to add to what I said in the House on 26th June (OFFICIAL REPORT, cols. 444–453). But I should like to take advantage of this opportunity to tell the House of our attitude if, following upon a cease-fire in Nigeria, the two parties to the conflict were to request an external observer force and were to ask for British participation in it. In that event, Her Majesty's Government would be ready to contribute up to one battalion with appropriate support, for a period of up to six months, to a Commonwealth force on the understanding that other Commonwealth countries also agreed to take part on a suitable scale and that such conditions were agreed upon as would permit the force to carry out its duties effectively.

Regarding relief, I promised on 26th June to make a further statement on this subject. Subject to parliamentary approval, I can now say that in addition to the £20,000 which we have already given to the Red Cross, Her Majesty's Government will now make available a further sum of up to £250,000 for humanitarian relief in the war-stricken areas of Nigeria, including the Ibo areas. Parliament will be asked in due course to approve a Supplementary Estimate. In the meantime, an advance will if necessary be sought from the Civil Contingencies Fund. The intention is that this relief aid should be used as flexibly as possible in order to make the greatest contribution to the relief of suffering, hardship and malnutrition.

To ensure that the money is spent in the most effective way, expert advice and on the spot discussion with local authorities and relief bodies concerned will be necessary. We are, therefore, arranging, given the necessary co-operation of both sides, for a high-powered relief advisory team to go out to Nigeria as a matter of urgency in order to assess the forms which our humanitarian help should take.

I am glad to be able to announce that Lord Hunt has accepted the invitation of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to lead the relief team to Nigeria and to make recommendations. Sir Colin Thornley, Director-General of the Save the Children Fund, and Mr. A. B. Hodgson, Deputy Director-General of the British Red Cross Society, have agreed to accompany Lord Hunt on this mission.

I am sure that the whole House will join with me in expressing our thanks to Lord Hunt and Sir Colin Thornley and Mr. Hodgson for agreeing to undertake this arduous but vital task.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that everyone in the House and in the country will be very pleased about the steps that he has just announced to try to give aid—food and medical supplies—to millions of people in need in Biafra?

Is my right hon. Friend also aware that many people here are outraged that arms supplies continue to be sold to the Nigerian Federal Government while there are millions of people starving and near to starvation in Biafra? Will the Government look again urgently at the question of arms supplies to the Nigerian Federal forces?

Mr. Thomson

I think that the important aspect is to bring about a cease-fire. I think that Her Majesty's Government have had some influence concerning the progress that has so far been made. Under these circumstances, I do not see any reason to change the position that was adopted by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary when this matter was fully debated in the House a week or two ago.

Mr. Barnes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the next two weeks are absolutely critical, because if supplies of food and medicines, at present sitting in Fernando Po and Lagos, are not got in by air, thousands of children will die? Has my right hon. Friend been able to use his influence to get the Federal Government to agree to Oxfam operating from Fernando Po a Hercules aircraft, which is available, and for which they are prepared to pay, which later this week could be flying in 100 tons a day?

Mr. Thomson

I understand that discussions are proceeding between the International Red Cross, Oxfam, the Ibo authorities in the East and the Federal Government in Lagos about the urgent matter that my hon. Friend has raised. From what I have been able to see of the appalling position around the fighting line in Nigeria, I think that there is a need for an emergency airlift. However, it is equally important to realise that if the human need is to be met in these areas the necessary volume of supplies can only be brought in by overland routes. The difficulty in getting agreement to that comes not from Lagos—they have given their agreement readily to these arrangements —but from the authorities in the Ibo areas.

Mr. Dempsey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that only within the last few days Biafra was described as a modern Belsen where 3,000 children have died from starvation and disease? While we welcome the additional £250,000 aid, will my right hon. Friend see to it that the amount is substantially stepped up to make our contribution towards alleviating any further suffering by the people of Biafra?

Mr. Thomson

I think that £250,000 is a very substantial contribution towards dealing with this problem. It is not directly a British responsibility; it is an International problem. I hope that the example set by Her Majesty's Government will be followed by some other countries.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is the Government's argument against stopping arms supplies the allegation that it gives us influence? Since the slaughter and starvation are continuing, it is clearly not giving us influence. Why cannot the Minister listen to the obvious feeling throughout the House and the nation that the Government should stop, jointly and individually, this traffic in arms?

Mr. Thomson

I think that if my hon. Friend with his usual fairness, studies what I have said he will see some evidence in the initiative that we have taken, and the results that we have obtained, of the kind of influence that we have with the Federal Government of Nigeria which is, after all, a major fellow Commonwealth Government. I am sure that at the moment very little slaughter is taking place. It is starvation which is of immediate concern, and the obstacle to getting something done about it is that the proposals made by the Federal Government to pull back their troops and have a kind of corridor of mercy have so far been obstructed by the authorities in the Ibo region.

Mr. Tilney

Having had lunch with a Member of Parliament of the Eastern Region who almost alone out of 300 people survived a massacre by the Ibos, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that atrocities have been committed by both sides? Although many of us have sympathy for the Ibo people, now that it looks as though their food and lives can be safeguarded internationally is not there some way of overcoming the suicidal wishes of their leaders and appealling to the Ibo people to come to a conference?

Mr. Thomson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I am sure that he is right. A civil war is one of the greatest tragedies that can happen, and a civil war of this character has meant that there have been atrocities on both sides. I hope that Colonel Ojukwu will respond to the appeal made by the hon. Gentleman and send somebody to the conference table. We could get these talks started immediately. They could bring about a cease-fire, and also be of vital importance in setting international agreement about a real international effort to alleviate the suffering and hardship that is going on.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The right hon. Gentleman has made some announcements this afternoon which I think the House will welcome, but they are in the rather longer term. So is the organisation of supplies over the land route. Is not the essential factor an assurance from Colonel Gowon that he will allow an airlift from Fernando Po? Cannot he ask Colonel Gowon to give an assurance that there is no possible obstacle in the way of that being done? I should have thought that that was the first thing to do.

Mr. Thomson

About an hour before coming to the House I heard from Lagos that the problem raised by the right hon. Gentleman was under active discussion in Lagos between the Federal Government and the International Red Cross about the means of delivering supplies to the rebel areas. An emergency airlift is one possibility which the Federal Government have not ruled out.

Mr. David Steel

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the detailed report in this morning's Scotsman in which the International Red Cross said that a cease-fire is essential in Nigeria if the Ibo people are to return to their villages and produce food themselves? Can the right hon. Gentleman say that we are contributing to a cease-fire if we and other nations of the world indiscriminately pour arms into the country?

Mr. Thomson

I studied the report in the Scotsman this morning, and was very much impressed by the account it gave of the human suffering, as one has been by so many reports coming out of these areas. But it is untrue to say that the British Government are indiscriminately pouring in arms. The arms which we provide for the Federal Government are under careful scrutiny and control all the time. The fighting is not taking place on any scale at the moment, as a result of self-restraint exercised by the Federal Government. I am sure that the important thing for us all to concentrate on is to persuade the Ibo authorities to do two things. First, to come and talk around the conference table, and, secondly, to respond to the offer to pull back the fighting men and thus create a corridor of mercy and get supplies moving on an adequate scale to deal with the problem.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu

Will my right hon. Friend be more precise about the observer force which he said the Government are ready to promise? Will it be armed?

Mr. Thomson

Some contingency planning has been going on for some time about the possibility of this kind of Commonwealth force, but I think that my hon. and learned Friend will understand that it is impossible to make very much progress until we are rather closer to knowing how many people will be willing to participate, and in what circumstances. Her Majesty's Government thought it right to take the initiative in this matter and give the kind of lead that we have sought to give this afternoon, and we hope that it will meet with some response.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

While the House welcomes the right hon. Gentleman's statement, I think that many of us feel that its speed is not being met by the right hon. Gentleman's proposals. There is essentially a matter of speed in these things. Will he consider again the idea of making a Royal Air Force detachment available to the International Red Cross? It is only by air that we can get supplies m quickly enough.

Mr. Thomson

Speed is of the essence in our proposal for a relief mission. I hope that, with the necessary co-operation in Nigeria, Lord Hunt and his colleagues will be there at the end of this week. I think that we must await the report which they will bring back, with a proper sense of urgency, to enable us to decide, among other things, what is the best transport method of meeting these needs. In the meantime, I am in no doubt that there is a need for an emergency airlift as a temporary measure, but I hope that the House will accept that if supplies are to be provided on an adequate scale they must go in by overland routes.

Mr. Crawshaw

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if the Ibos are not cooperating this is probably because we are failing to show our moral responsibility in this crisis? How can they possibly place reliance on us when we are putting supplies into the hands of their enemies? I know the difficulties confronting the Government, but is it not possible to stop supplies even for two or three weeks while these negotiations are going on, to give the Ibos some feeling of security in this matter?

Mr. Thomson

I think that giving the Ibos a feeling of security is a vital element in this whole situation. It is for this reason that we have given the backing we have to the idea of a Commonwealth force. I think that this kind of international force will give the Ibos a longer term sense of security. I hope that on the basis of being given that assurance they will be ready to come and negotiate flexibly around the table—I hope within the framework of a single Nigeria—arrangements for living at peace with their neighbours.

Mr. Braine

May I press the right hon. Gentleman to answer the crucial question? Is he aware that the advisory team must, of necessity, take a week, 10 days, or perhaps even longer to make its recommendations? In the meantime, the voluntary agencies on the spot have reported that thousands of children are dying. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these agencies have stockpiled food in Fernando Po, and have an aircraft ready to fly in supplies? What obstacles are preventing this mercy mission taking place tomorrow?

Mr. Thomson

I think that the hon. Gentleman over-simplifies the position. Talks are going on about the supplies in both Fernando Po and Lagos, and about the best means of getting these as quickly as possible to the people who need them. I have no reason to believe that there are any obstacles on the Federal side to that taking place, but if they go in by air the planes will have to land on an improvised grass strip. The proposal which Oxfam and that the International Red Cross are considering is a landing on an improvised grass strip. If that is done, it will be on much too small a scale to meet the real needs.

Mr. Braine

With respect, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is misinformed. The plan is to drop food because of the difficulty in using air strips.

Mr. Thomson

We are ready to look at and co-operate in any method which will get the supplies as quickly as possible to the people who need them.

Mr. James Griffiths

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we all join in the appeal that he has made to Colonel Ojukwu to accept the offer to come to London and get a cease-fire quickly? Will he reconsider what has been said from both sides of the House, that this is very urgent, and will he take all possible steps to assist Oxfam and others who are ready to go into action at once, long before the assessors can return to this country?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend press for a cease-fire as soon as possible? I appreciate the efforts which have been made, but is my right hon. Friend aware that the consensus of opinion is that unless a cease-fire is brought about the Government ought seriously to consider withdrawing arms support from the Federal Government?

Mr. Thomson

Naturally, I always listen with respect to what my right hon. Friend, with his great experience in the office that I hold, says about these matters. I assure him that the Government are tackling everything that they do with a sense of maximum urgency. I do not think that anybody is under any illusion about the strength of public opinion on the issues here, to which my right hon. Friend has just given such eloquent expression.

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