HC Deb 26 June 1968 vol 767 cc444-53
Sir Alec Douglas-Home

(by Private Notice)asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the visit of his noble Friend Lord Shepherd to Nigeria.

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

During his visit to Lagos, my noble Friend Lord Shepherd had three lengthy meetings with General Gowon and other members of the Federal Government. He was also able to pay visits to Calabar and Enugu to see for himself some of the problems of relief and rehabilitation and to speak to civilians and prisoners of war in those areas.

In addition to delivering a letter to General Gowon from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Lord Shepherd had four main aims in going to Lagos. First, he wished to follow up the contacts which he had already had separately with representatives of the two sides in London, with a view to securing a resumption of talks between them after the break-down of the peace talks at Kampala. He had already been promised by the Biafran representative, Sir Louis Mbanefo, that he would be prepared to resume direct informal talks in London provided that Lord Shepherd was able to satisfy himself that the Federal Government were prepared for meaningful negotiations. In Lagos, General Gowon assured Lord Shepherd that the Federal Government were ready to start direct talks on an informal basis as soon as possible and to send a representative to London for this purpose with a view to reconvening the Kampala conference.

As a result of his discussions, Lord Shepherd is satisfied that meaningful talks are possible and Her Majesty's Government hope that Sir Louis Mbanefo will shortly return to London to take up this offer. Lord Shepherd will be seeing Mr. Arnold Smith, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth tomorrow morning about the practical arrangements for the resumption of talks.

Second, in response to Lord Shepherd's inquiries, General Gowon expressed the readiness of his Government to see, as part of a satisfactory ceasefire arrangement, the introduction of an external observer force. He emphasised that the purpose of such a force would be to give a sense of security to the Ibo people.

Third, Lord Shepherd was able, in Lagos, to emphasise the concern which is felt in this country about the need to avoid unnecessary casualties. He stressed the urgent necessity of achieving a negotiated end to hostilities before the conflict reached a scale likely to cause greater suffering and loss of life to the civilian population.

Lord Shepherd was given earnest assurances by the Federal Government as to their wish to co-operate in this and keep casualties to a minimum. General Gowon said that it was not his intention to order further bombing attacks except against important military targets such as airfields being used for arms supplies. General Gowon underlined the responsibility which he, personally, and the Federal Government felt for the safety and well-being of all Nigerians.

Fourth, Lord Shepherd emphasised the need to bring urgent relief to the population suffering from the effects of the conflict. General Gowon promised his Government's full and ready co-operation in allowing relief supplies to be taken through an agreed corridor in the fighting lines under the control of the International Red Cross, and was ready to put at the disposal of the Red Cross whatever airports or sea ports were considered most practicable.

Her Majesty's Government are urgently considering what more we can do to relieve the plight of refugees in war-stricken areas. It is our intention to increase significantly our financial contribution to the relief of distress and I shall make a further statement on this aspect shortly.

With permission, I will have the communique issued at the end of Lord Shepherd's visit printed in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, and am glad to see him back in good health.

The whole House will hope that talks may be resumed, although we understand the stubborn nature of the political difficulties. When talking about the observer force, the right hon. Gentleman did not report on General Gowon's attitude to it. May we take it that he is willing to see an observer force introduced?

Perhaps I might concentrate my question on the matter of relief, which is probably uppermost in the mind of the House. If there are no obstacles on the Federal side to relief going into Biafra, what are the obstacles? If it is true that the Biafrans are afraid that the food supplies are tampered with, which I believe is one of the reasons why they will not accept them, it is possible that the Government might consider the use of Transport Command, with planes properly certified by the Red Cross as carrying only food, so that they would not have to go near Federal territory? I put that to the Minister as a suggestion. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would consider some of these things.

Mr. Thomson

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's first question, I did say in my rather long statement that General Gowon had expressed a readiness to see an external observer force set up.

In reply to the other question, about which there is such deep concern in the House and country, the present obstacle to getting the relief that is urgently needed is that the International Red Cross is awaiting a reply from the Bia-fran side. We are ready to look at any practicable way in which we can be of assistance, within the economic limitations that are obviously imposed on us, and I shall consider what the right hon. Gentleman suggested.

The important thing to bear in mind about air transport is that the International Red Cross is convinced that the only way in which the volume of relief supplies now needed for Biafra can be got into Biafra is by a land route, because the present airstrips in Biafra are inadequate to meet the volume of supplies required.

Mr. Henig

Is it now the case that the two sides in the war are willing to have an unconditional cease-fire as the first step in their peace talks? Since the Nigerian Federal Government now seem to be in control of all legitimate military targets in the war, did Lord Shepherd make it clear to them that a majority opinion, certainly in the House of Commons, would be loath to see any further supplies of British arms for use against the Biafrans?

Mr. Thomson

The question of the supply of arms was stated with great clarity by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in the debate on 12th June. He then emphasised that there were two considerations that might compel a revision of British policy in this respect. One would be a loss of life that would seem to British public opinion to be avoidable in further military operations, and the second would be an unwillingness by the Federal Government to enter into negotiations. One of the useful results of the visit of my noble Friend Lord Shepherd, was to get very clear assurances from the Federal Government on both those points.

Earl of Dalkeith

What exactly is meant by "an observer force"? Would the right hon. Gentleman try to jerk the Prime Minister out of his lethargy into taking the initiative with Commonwealth Prime Ministers to set up an established peace-keeping force for use on occasions like this?

Mr. Thomson

I think that what is meant by "an observer force" is something which must be discussed between the two sides to the conflict and the countries that would be willing to contribute. I can only say, with regard to the noble Lord's remarks about the lethargy of my right hon. Friend, that my right hon. Friend has taken the initiative from the British side in trying to get active consideration given by interested countries to the setting-up of this kind of force, which would fulfil the crucial element in bringing the conflict to an end by offering safeguards on the safety of the Ibo population.

Mr. James Griffiths

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we appreciate very much the efforts made by Lord Shepherd and hope very much that out of them will come talks? But the first thing is to get a cease-fire. I gather that my right hon. Friend said that General Gowon told Lord Shepherd that he would stop bombing any places except those of military interest, or whatever the term was.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend appreciates that it seems to those of us who have some knowledge of Nigeria that what we have at the moment in Biafra is a large number of people roaming the country homeless and starving. Just to cease bombing is not what is wanted at the present time. What is wanted is a cease-fire and a renewal of the talks at Kampala in this context so that the Ibo people can be secured from what has happened to them in the past. May I urge my right hon. Friend to press for a cease-fire? If we cannot achieve that, cannot we stop the supply of arms to Nigeria?

Mr. Thomson

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said about the work of Lord Shepherd, who worked indefatigably last weekend in Lagos and other parts of Nigeria to promote the cause of peace. It was not for the British Government to offer any particular peace formula, but what they have obtained from both sides in the conflict in recent days is an expression of willingness to come to talks without pre-conditions. The next step is to get that expression of willingness given practical effect by getting the two sides around the table— I hope in London.

Mr. David Steel

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, in addition to these constructive initiatives to get both sides together and secure help for the refugees, the Government are prepared to take any initiatives at the international level to stop arms going into Nigeria?

Mr. Thomson

One of the benefits of bringing about a cease-fire, which must be our aim, is to create conditions in which both sides would feel prepared to suspend the import of arms.

Mr. Murray

While I am sure that the whole House would give credit to Lord Shepherd and my right hon. Friend for their efforts to end the conflict, would not the Government think twice about supplying arms to the Federal Government? My right hon. Friend said that he will be making a statement shortly about supplies through the International Red Cross. How long will "shortly" be, in view of the many thousands who are dying in Nigeria at the present time?

Mr. Thomson

I always hate to prophesy about "shortly", because one never knows what snags one may meet. But we are dealing with the matter with the utmost sense of urgency. It is being dealt with hour by hour in my office.

With regard to my hon. Friend's question, Lord Shepherd made clear in Lagos that the British Government might feel compelled to review their policy on the supply of arms if the war were to lead to avoidable human casualties.

Sir G. Nabarro

Is not the position that the two principal suppliers of arms to Nigeria are Great Britain and Soviet Russia—Soviet Russia rather more so than Great Britain? Is it not, therefore, sensible to talk to the Russians in London and elsewhere about their stopping the supply of arms?

Mr. Thomson

I think that the hon. Gentleman starts at the wrong end of the problem. The urgent thing now—we are very close to it—is to get the two sides around the table to agree on a cease-fire. On the basis of that one can then make the kind of progress that the hon. Gentleman wishes to see.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

While I join with others in congratulating my right hon. Friend on the work of Lord Shepherd in securing negotiations for a land corridor for relief supplies and the other results that he has obtained, may I press my right hon. Friend on the subject of arms? Since the United States said from the beginning that it would supply no arms for this war, and since Belgium and Czechoslovakia have also stopped sending arms, will not the British Government, so as to make the cease-fire effective and lasting, stop our own supply of arms and take maximum efforts to secure a general international stoppage of such arms?

Mr. Thomson

I understand the depth of feeling of my right hon. Friend on this matter, but it needs two sides to make a cease-fire effective. The major priority here is to get the two sides around the table in order to bring about that ceasefire.

Mrs. Ewing

May I call the attention of my right hon. Friend to a petition on behalf of Biafran mothers resident in Scotland who have had no news of their children since March, 1967? I do that in the hope that a promise may be obtained during the talks that information can be given now to quieten the distraught minds of such people in this country who have no news of their relatives in Biafra.

Mr. Thomson

I hope that one of the results of getting an effective relief operation going quickly will be to provide information about the actual conditions in Biafra and information about such personal cases as the hon. Lady has in mind.

Mr. Delargy

My right hon. Friend speaks about urgency in these talks about peace. Are we still supplying arms to Nigeria? Is there no urgency about stopping arms to Nigeria?

Secondly, these emergency supplies of food, and so on, cannot be supplied adequately by air. They must be sent by sea. We could do it. One battalion of British soldiers going to Port Harcourt or Lagos could solve the whole problem in a week. I hear an hon. Friend of mine talking about soldiers in Rhodesia. I do not think that that would solve anything. But we could stop the war in Nigeria in a week if the Government had any guts in the matter.

Mr. Thomson

I do not think the Government lack courage in the matter. The question is: what is the wisest course to bring about an end to the fighting there? I would emphasise to my hon. Friend that the right priority is to bring about a cease-fire—

Mr. Delargy

By sending arms?

Mr. Thomson

—and that is what our energies are directed towards.

With regard to the relief operation, perhaps my hon. Friend did not hear what I said in my statement when I emphasised that supplies had to go in overland if they were to go in in the requisite volume to meet the needs of the Biafran people. The removal of the obstacles to the land route lies not with ourselves or the Government in Lagos, but with the authorities in Biafra.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

In view of the great urgency of getting supplies in, and of the fact that the land routes are very difficult at the moment, would the right hon. Gentleman consider taking up the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend and offer to the International Red Cross a small mission from Transport Command? That is an extremely flexible Command, and I am sure that, given the problem, it can do much more to meet it than has been suggested on the other side of the House.

Mr. Thomson

I said that I should look carefully at the suggestion made by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. However, I emphasise again that at the moment air transport is not the problem. There is great suffering in Biafra. Mr. Richard Gallopin, the Executive Director of the International Red Cross, said yesterday that a land route through Nigeria was the only way by which medical supplies could be brought to Biafra.

Mr. Barnes

What does it mean when Lord Shepherd speaks of "unnecessary deaths", which, if they took place, would then force Britain to stop supplying arms to Nigeria? Do not the thousands of deaths now taking place in Biafra from starvation mean that the point has been reached when the pledge that the Foreign Secretary gave in the debate must be honoured?

Mr. Thomson

I do not think that the suffering that is going on in Biafra can be met by the stopping of British arms supplies to Nigeria. That human suffering can best be met by the kind of constructive influence that Britain has brought to bear on the Federal Government in securing its co-operation in getting supplies there.

I ask my hon. Friend to apply his pressure in the right quarter. The present obstacle to helping the suffering people in Biafra is the Biafran authorities themselves.

Mr. Onslow

What efforts have been made to bring together the Nigerian and Biafran communities in this country so that they can be jointly associated in some practical way with the essential business of relief?

Mr. Thomson

The urgent need is to get the representatives of Nigeria and the Biafrans around a table in London. To that, all our energies have been devoted. The main place of co-operation for the communities in this country at the moment seems to be Downing Street on Sunday afternoons.

Mr. James Johnson

My right hon. Friend referred to the introduction of a Commonwealth observer force into Eastern Nigeria, and I hope that it will include Canadians and Indians. This is not only a war of weapons, but of propaganda. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that we need not only the expression of safeguards here in London, but safeguards in the territory itself?

Mr. Thomson

We have taken the lead in saying that safeguards are necessary for the Ibo population and are ready to consider what part we can play in any agreed Commonwealth force. I hope that we can all agree on that.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.

Following is the communiqué: Talks between Major General Gowon, Head of the Federal Military Government and the British Minister of State for Commonwealth Affairs, Lord Shepherd, took place in Lagos on Friday, Saturday and Monday, 21st, 22nd, and 24th June. The main purpose of Lord Shepherd's visit was to deliver personally a letter from the British Prime Minister, Mr. Wilson, in reply to a letter from General Gowon, but this afforded an opportunity for a full frank and cordial exchange of views on the Nigerian situation. Lord Shepherd, whilst reaffirming the British Government's policy of support for the Federal Government, explained that an increasing number of people were apprehensive on humanitarian grounds of the possible consequences of further military operations. He emphasised the necessity of achieving a negotiated end to hostilities before the conflict reached a scale likely to cause greater suffering and loss of life to the civilian population. The British Government were also considering what further practical steps they could take to help in relief operations in view of the widespread concern felt in Britain about the suffering caused by the war. In reply, General Gowon emphasised the need to preserve the unity and territorial integrity of Nigeria and expressed the compassion which his Government felt for all those to whom the war had brought suffering. He declared his determination to do all he could to bring relief to all affected throughout Nigeria. The Federal Military Government were always prepared to discuss the practical implementation of this policy with representatives of all organisations active in the field of relief. General Gowon expressed his regret that the Kampala talks had broken down and confirmed his readiness at all times to explore ways of finding a solution at the conference table. He was prepared to send representatives to London or anywhere else to engage in informal discussions with the object of reconvening the peace talks in Kampala. Lord Shepherd expressed satisfaction at this statement. He expected that the British Government would be pursuing the efforts to assist in arranging such discussions on his return to London. General Gowon reaffirmed that provided agreement was reached on ending secession and preserving a united Nigeria the Federal Government were agreeable to ceasefire arrangements involving an external observer force as a means of giving a sense of security to the Ibo people. He emphasised that responsibility he, personally, and the Federal Government felt for the safety and well-being of all Nigerians wherever they lived in the Federation.