HC Deb 11 June 1968 vol 766 cc34-40
Mr. Winnick

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the Government's decision to begin talks with both sides in the Nigerian civil war in order to find a settlement.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

I have been asked to reply.

Her Majesty's Government were distressed that, despite the efforts of the Commonwealth Secretary-General and of the Government of Uganda, the peace talks at Kampala should have been suspended.

It has all along been the policy of Her Majesty's Government to support every endeavour to bring the Nigerian civil war to a negotiated conclusion so as to avoid further bloodshed, suffering and bitterness. In the new circumstances they have felt it right to take advantage of the presence in London of the leaders of the two negotiating teams, Chief Enahoro and Sir Louis Mbanefe to conduct informal exploratory talks with each.

The object is not to try to take over from Mr. Arnold Smith, to whose patient and skilful work we all pay tribute, but to see if we cannot help to smooth the path back to the conference table. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Shepherd saw Chief Enahoro on 7th June and Sir Louis Mbanefe last evening; he hopes to have further talks with each of them this evening.

The House will not expect me to discuss the details of these exploratory exchanges, but I must make it clear that no question of recognition is involved.

Our greatest interest in all this is that peace should be restored in Nigeria as soon as possible and I hope that the House will approve of the initiative which we are taking.

Mr. Winnick

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that he and the Government will have the good will and support of the entire House in trying to end the slaughter and to bring about a negotiated settlement? Is he aware of the depth of feeling in the country that arms supplied to the Nigerian Government should be cut off so that we should not be a party to the slaughter?

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, in his opinion, since Biafra is now recognised by a number of African Governments, it is possible that the decision to recognise Biafra will have some influence on Russian policy to continue to supply the Nigerians with arms?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think that I can answer for the Russian Government's policy. Nor do I think that the recognition of Biafra—by, I think, four countries—has materially affected the situation. I think that it is understood that it is the general aim of African countries that they should not be threatened by secession and possibly dissolution.

On the question of the supply of arms, I do indeed know the depth of feeling, but I am convinced that if we were to take the steps suggested by my hon. Friend now, certainly at this juncture above all, it would not in any way enable us to contribute more towards a settlement but might make it harder for us to play a useful part.

Mr. Maudling

We on this side of the House share the Government's desire to see peace in Nigeria. We certainly wish success to this new initiative, but may I press the right hon. Gentleman on the question of the supply of arms? While fully appreciating the reasons behind Government policy up to date owing to the extremely difficult situation, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will reconsider policy on this point, particularly now when the dangers of massive slaughter appear to be brooding over the scene?

Mr. Stewart

If we look at the situation as it now stands with this fresh possibility of getting talks started again, we have to remember that the suspension of talks at Kampala was brought about by Biafran action and that for us to take action now which would be hostile to the State prepared to go on with the talks would not, I think, help the situation.

Mr. David Steel

I welcome the statement made by the Foreign Secretary. Does it mark a change of policy from a year ago, when no Government would speak to Sir Louis Mbanefo when in London? Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed the statements made by Cardinal Heenan and the Church of Scotland on the growing disquiet about the supply of arms in this tragic situation?

Mr. Stewart

In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the circumstances to which he referred of a year ago were not comparable to those now. As I made clear, the fact that these talks are now to go on does not involve recognition. The main thread of the Government's policy throughout has been to seek a peaceful settlement with both sides, and that remains our policy.

I am aware of the expressions of feeling to which the hon. Member has referred, both from those quarters and from others, but I believe that the right answer is the one that I have already given.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Will Her Majesty's Government now take the initiative in approaching the other Governments involved to stop the export of all arms to Nigeria, both from Government and private sources? Is he aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are distinctly puzzled by the Government's continual and persistent refusal to take this positive and normal procedure?

Mr. Stewart

We have said, and I want to reaffirm this, that if it were possible to get a cessation of arms supplies that would be agreeable to both sides in order to promote a settlement, we should be glad to consider that. What I felt it necessary to reject was a proposal that by our own action we should stop the supply of arms to the Federal military Government at this time.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the pressing issue of the supply of Red Cross material? The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House has said that this would be looked at by the Government. There is world pressure for this action. There is resistance to Red Cross supplies being landed. I am sure that the best contribution that we could make would be to insist on Red Cross material getting through.

Mr. Stewart

Yes, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Commonwealth Secretary to look further into that. I understand that the Federal military Government have expressed their willingness to facilitate the supply of materials of this kind into Biafra.

Mr. James Griffiths

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will realise that all of us hope that these discussions will lead to a settlement. If they do not, I hope that he will bear in mind the experience of the Ibo people over the years since this trouble began. If there cannot be a cease-fire, will my right hon. Friend realise that many of us feel that the Government would be under a moral obligation to work with other Governments to stop the supply of arms?

Mr. Stewart

I note very carefully what my right hon. Friend says, but he will agree that this question is hypothetical on attempts to reach a settlement being unsuccessful. I very much hope that hypothesis will not be realised.

Mr. Tilney

In addition to approaching all Western Governments as well as those of the Eastern bloc with a view to exerting the maximum pressure on both sides, would the Foreign Secretary offer British participation in a Commonwealth peace-keeping force so that the Ibos need not fear massacre and the federalists need not fear the build-up of arms against them?

Mr. Stewart

It might well be that a force of that kind could play a part in a final settlement, but the question of joint action with Governments outside the Commonwealth we should have to consider very carefully. We would probably be unwilling to consider joint action with Governments outside the Commonwealth that might have the effect of depriving a Commonwealth Government of a supply which normally it would get.

Mr. Paget

In view of the overwhelming evidence that the policy of the Nigerian Army is to slaughter men, women and children, can one say that the Biafrans are responsible for breaking off the talks when the condition of the talks was that authority should be handed over to that Nigerian Army?

Secondly, can one be on the side of the integrity of Nigeria, which, after all, is a colonial accident, when, before this war happened, 30,000 Ibos were slaughtered in other parts of Nigeria?

Mr. Stewart

On the first part of my hon. and learned Friend's question, I cannot accept the assumption of fact which he makes, and, in consequence, I cannot agree with his conclusion.

On the second part, I think that it should be noticed that there are living in territory held by the Federal military Government a considerable number of Ibo population unmolested. I know that there is a complex and unhappy history to this, but I do not believe that to deny the integrity or existence of Nigeria would be the right way out of the problem.

Mr. Crouch

Has the Foreign Secretary sensed this afternoon the growing awareness of both sides of the House in recognising his determination to achieve peace between the two disputing sides in Nigeria? Is he also sensitive to the growing misunderstanding on both sides of the House at the Government's lack of strength in taking the initiative to stop sending supplies to one side? Will he not give an initiative to the other countries involved in the supply of arms?

Mr. Stewart

I have answered already, in reply to other hon. Members, both the points which the hon. Member has made. I am glad to feel that in his judgment we are attempting to reach a settlement, but I have given reasons, which, I think, are adequate, why the cutting-off of the supply of arms, particularly at this juncture, would not help to promote a settlement.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

While everyone wishes the Foreign Secretary well in his efforts to secure a settlement, if those efforts do not speedily succeed will he make a maximum effort to secure that all arms from all sources shall be stopped?

Mr. Stewart

I must make two points about that. First, this is a hypothetical question. Secondly, as I said in reply to an hon. Member opposite, I do not think that we should wish to take joint action with countries outside the Commonwealth to prevent the supply of arms to Commonwealth Governments.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Has the Foreign Secretary noted that Sweden has stopped sending arms to Nigeria? Surely he must be aware that the amount of arms going to the Federal Government completely outweighs the amount going to the other side? Will he take note of the fact that Her Majesty's Government have refused to supply arms to South Africa to carry out her obligations under the Simonstown Treaty, but do send arms where casualties are mounting every day?

Mr. Stewart

There is no parallel between these two cases. There is an extremely important difference, to mention one, that in South Africa we are carrying out a resolution of the United Nations Security Council.