HC Deb 16 May 1968 vol 764 cc1395-401
Q3. Mr. Rose

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on his talks with representatives of the Nigerian Federal Government.

Q6. Mr. Barnes

asked the Prime Minister what discussions he had with Dr. Arikpo, the representative of the Nigerian Federal Government, regarding the continuing supply of British arms.

Q11. Mr. James Johnson

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement upon his discussions with Dr. Arikpo, representing the Federal Government of Nigeria, about future help in the matter of arms and ammunition.

The Prime Minister

The long and useful talks which my right hon. Friend the Commonwealth Secretary and I had with Dr. Arikpo on 24th April centred largely on the prospects for ending the war. Arms supplies were not discussed. In the course of the talks we once again stressed Her Majesty's Government's support for a negotiated settlement and for the earliest possible peace talks. The whole House will, I know, share my pleasure that the subsequent talks between representatives of the two sides, with the help of the Commonwealth Secretary-General, have been successful and that peace talks are to start soon.

Mr. Rose

I welcome the initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister accept that the most effective way of hastening a peace settlement in this area would be to curtail the supply of arms to one side in the struggle? Would he reconsider the Government's current policy in the light of these peace initiatives that are now being taken?

The Prime Minister

I think that we had better let the two sides now get on with the peace talks which, after enormous difficulty, but very much with our help, they have agreed should take place. There have been some very exaggerated accounts about our arms supplies. We have been held responsible for supplying aerial bombs, for example. We have supplied none.

Mr. Barnes

Does not the Prime Minister agree that this war has now reached a level of brutality where the earliest possible cease-fire must be the overriding priority? What possible justification can there be for Britain to go on feeding arms into the war on the one hand when we are trying to stop it with the other?

The Prime Minister

The earliest possible cease-fire has been our aim from the beginning. Indeed, before the fighting broke out, we used all our influence, as did many other Commonwealth Governments, to prevent it from breaking out. Our supplying of arms has been limited to the normal arms we have supplied in the past to the Federal Government. Now that talks have started, I do not think that we could pursue this matter with any great hope of influencing the situation.

Mr. Johnson

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been called to an article by Mr. Forsyth which appeared in the Sunday Times last Sunday? Will not my right hon. Friend think again about a moratorium, at least while the peace talks are going on in Kampala, because this would give Biafra the impression, which it does not have now, that we are as between the two sides impartial?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will recognise the difficulties here, where there is a Federal Government and a break-away or attempted break-away, or purported break-away, by one part of it. We have had very great difficulties in handling this situation, but we have encouraged at all points the Secretary-General to pursue his peace-making activities; and in my own talks with Dr. Arikpo we very strongly pressed him to make it clear—there had been some public doubt about this—that he was willing to go to the conference table. Now they are going.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that the whole House hopes that these talks will bring to an end this tragic war with a member State of the Commonwealth? Can he tell the House whether arms are still being supplied to one side in this civil war, or whether it is the intention of the Government to supply them? Since one of the fundamental concepts of the modern Commonwealth is that we do not interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign members of the Commonwealth, what possible justification is there for supplying arms to one side in a civil war?

The Prime Minister

The position about arms supplies is exactly as I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have described it on a number of occasions. We have continued the supply—not the Government; I mean that we have allowed the continuance of supply of aims by private manufacturers in this country exactly on the basis that it has been in the past, but there has been no special provision for the needs of the war. As I have said, we have refused to supply arms of a kind, such as bombs and other things which we were asked for, which were required, or considered to, be required, for this war.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

May I, while congratulating my right hon. Friend on his efforts to bring the war to an end, ask him to recall that in similar disputes in the past and in similar situations the stoppage of arms has sometimes proved decisive in favour of peace?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, but not always in the case where there is a Commonwealth Government whom we recognise and where there is an attempted break-away or civil war within the jurisdiction of that Government whom we recognise. [Interruption.] This is too serious a matter, even for the hon. Gentleman's misplaced sense of humour. We have been consistent throughout in trying to get these two parties to the conference table. The supply of arms, including some much more devastating arms than the type we have been supplying, has been going on to both sides from a large number of countries and Governments. We have had no part in that.

Sir J. Eden

Has not this war now reached the stage of genocide? Does not the Prime Minister agree that it would further the cause of peace and serve this country's best interests if Her Majesty's Government were to have nothing more to do with the supply of any arms?

The Prime Minister

If we had taken that view, it would have been taking sides in that particular dispute. Certainly I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this war has reached a state of great brutality, as modern warfare always does. That is why, both in our arms policy and in other ways, we have sought to use all our influence to bring the two sides to the conference table, and particularly to use our influence against any danger that following a settlement there might be tribal disturbances, tribal massacres, or anything of that kind. I am sure that it would be the view of the whole House that this is what we should be doing.

Mr. Heath

If Her Majesty's Government are not prepared to stop the supply of arms to the Federal Government immediately, would they be prepared to take an initiative to try to get a scaling down of the supply of arms to both sides from all sources, now that we know that the talks are to start? We all welcome the fact that talks are to start.

The Prime Minister

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition about welcoming the talks. We have tried to get a stoppage of arms supplies on a much wider scale. One of the difficulties here is that it is not only a question of governmental controls. A great deal of private traffic in second-hand arms has been going on, with a lot of money changing hands. The right hon. Gentleman will know that some well-known international mecenaries have been involved in this fighting as well. It would be practically impossible to stop this by any kind of international inter-governmental action. We have used our position, including our arms supply, to try to bring the two sides to the conference table.

Mr. James Griffiths

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the major difficulties in bringing this civil war to an end is the fear of the Ibo people, not without some reason, that the policy of the Federal Government is to destroy them as a people? Will my right hon. Friend seek to influence the Federal Government to make a very firm statement that there is a place for the Ibo people in Nigeria?

The Prime Minister

Yes; my right hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he is asking about. I obviously have to choose my words rather carefully here, because getting the two sides to the conference table has been very difficult. That was what I had in mind in answering the question asked by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden). As I have said, there is a fear of a massacre, even after fighting officially ceases. We have used our influence in many directions to ensure that that danger is reduced to nil. I was extremely reassured by what Dr. Arikpo said to me on this whole question and by the forthcoming attitude of the Federal Government to the idea of talks. That is why we are glad that following the statement here which Dr. Arikpo made after talks with me, the two sides are now to go to the conference table in Kampala.

Mr. Thorpe

May I press the Prime Minister further? In reply to me he said that private firms were being allowed to continue to supply arms on the usual terms, and that this process had done something to bring the parties to the conference table. Is not he aware that there is a totally new situation, that there is a civil war in which Nigerians are shooting Nigerians, and one side happens to be supplied with British arms? Surely, this is making it more difficult for us to take an initiative in settling peace and intervening in the internal affars of Nigeria?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's understandable heat does not correspond with the facts of what we have been doing to get the parties together. As I have said, the position is that arms contracts have been placed in the past by the Government of Nigeria, and arms have been continuing to be supplied by some of our manufacturers. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman wants to query the fact that this is the Government of Nigeria, and that arms are being supplied by all kinds of countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain to both sides. We have confined our supplies to the traditional arms supplies which would have been bought elsewhere if we had not supplied them, and we have in consequence been able to exert some influence on the road to the peace talks because of what we have done.

Mr. Paget

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the reports that indicate that the Nigerian Federal Army has ceased to be under the control of the Nigerian Federal Government, that it is ignoring its orders and is involved in what has been referred to as open genocide of the Ibos? In those circumstances, is not this the moment to try to initiate international action to stop this?

The Prime Minister

In this kind of war and in this kind of territory, I am afraid that there is always the possibility that my hon. and learned Friend has mentioned, that orders of the responsible Government are not fully carried out. It was our concern about this, about possible massacres, about possible genocide, which led to some of the talks and some of the representations we have made. I want to make it quite clear to my hon. and learned Friend that any change in our policy of arms supply, which has been on a very restrictive scale, would have done nothing either to bring the parties to the conference table or to stop the kind of indiscipline on both sides to which he refers.

Our efforts were directed to bringing them to the conference table. The fact that we did not act in a way which would have implied a cessation of recognition of the Federal Government has been one of the important factors dealing with the very dangers my hon. and learned Friend has in mind.