HC Deb 07 July 1969 vol 786 cc951-8
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the relief situation in Nigeria.

In the communiqué issued on 1st July after talks with the relief agencies, the Federal Government undertook to permit the transport of food, seeds, drugs and clothing to the rebel-held areas by air after due inspection in Lagos or at other inspection points in Federal areas that might be agreed.

The Federal Government maintained their ban on night flights, but reaffirmed their willingness to allow day flights. These would take place every day between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

This was accepted by all the relief representatives present, except for the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was unable to commit his organisation without instructions.

The Federal Government also made it clear that there was no question of expelling the Red Cross and that in taking over co-ordination of relief work within Federal territory the Government wished to work out a scheme for the orderly transfer of responsibilities in consultation with the International Red Cross, the Nigerian Red Cross, the other relief agencies and the Nigerian Commission for Rehabilitation.

Two things are needed to make the Federal offer on daylight flights effective: the co-operation of the relief agencies, and acceptance by the rebel authorities. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State accordingly visited Geneva on 2nd July for urgent talks with the President and senior officials of the International Red Cross.

My hon. Friend made known to the International Red Cross our willingness to help and our strongly-held view that the future of relief operations should be worked out together by the I.C.R.C. and the Federal Government. He found full agreement on this point.

I myself saw Dr. Arikpo, the Nigerian Commissioner for External Affairs, on 5th July. He confirmed his Government's willingness to co-operate fully over the provision of relief by air, land or river, provided that reasonable arrangements are worked out first in the manner proposed.

Dr. Arikpo assured me that the Federal Government would agree to neutral observers at the inspection points in Federal territory as a guarantee against tampering with relief supplies and as an assurance that the inspection procedures would be speedy. He explained that the project for taking relief into the rebel area by the Cross River had not yet been agreed in detail.

We were able to arrange a meeting in London at the weekend between Dr. Arikpo and Professor Freymond, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Professor Freymond confirmed that the Red Cross would be willing to operate daylight flights as now proposed by the Federal Government subject to detailed agreement on guarantees of safety for Red Cross crews, aircraft and personnel.

The I.C.R.C. is sending a senior emissary to Lagos early this week for a continuation of the talks which were begun in London at the weekend. I greatly hope that these contacts mark a new beginning in better relations of trust and co-operation between the Federal Government and the International Red Cross.

The position, therefore, is that the Nigerian Government are ready to let relief go through on conditions which are in themselves reasonable and are acceptable to the relief agencies at the Lagos Conference. Colonel Ojukwu's agreement is now vital. We are accordingly considering urgently with the Governments and relief organisations concerned how best to secure his agreement without delay so that the flow of relief may be resumed at the earliest possible moment.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

If the Red Cross is now willing to operate daylight flights and the Federal Government are agreeable to the neutral inspectors to ensure that no arms can be sent on these flights which are carrying food supplies, it looks as though it is more hopeful that we shall get emergency relief by air, which it is vital to get organised. I certainly hope that that is so.

We shall return to this matter on Thursday, so I will not proceed with it now except to say that we very much hope that these efforts are successful.

Mr. Stewart

I entirely accept what the right hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Wyatt

Is it not very generous of the Nigerian Government to allow these flights in view of the fact that international observers reported on 27th June that Biafran troops are being fed on rations supplied by charitable organisations? Is it not time that people stopped sniping at the Nigerian Government for simply trying to make sure that arms are not run in with relief supplies sent by the Red Cross and other organisations?

Mr. Stewart

We must accept that, in the whole history of warfare, any nation which has been in a position to starve its enemy out has done so. As far as I know, this is the first occasion on which a Government who were in a position to do so have said, "We are willing not to do so provided that there are conditions which ensure that our generosity is not exploited for military ends". That is one of the massive and solid facts in the whole situation.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there will be relief that the Federal authorities have recognised that the Red Cross is an indispensable factor in relief operations? May I ask him two questions? First, without going into the merits of Colonel Ojukwu's objections, in view of his hitherto held objections to day flights, is it suggested that relief planes will or will not have Federal personnel aboard, because that seems to me an important factor?

Secondly, will the Foreign Secretary agree, whatever may be his reservations about the use of the word, that any side which now stands in the way of relief getting through with the knowledge that 3 million people stand the risk of starvation will be committing genocide?

Mr. Stewart

I think that that is true. As far as I know, the point about Federal personnel being aboard has never been suggested. It is not required by the Nigerian Government. They require merely to have an opportunity in their territory to see that relief planes are not abused, and they are ready to have neutral observers there to see that they do not waste time over the inspection. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that anyone who, in these circumstances, opposes the sending in of relief bears a dreadful responsibility.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the efforts which he has made to achieve this agreement will be very greatly appreciated in the country among all those who have tried to study this question impartially?

Mr. Stewart

I am obliged to my hon. and learned Friend. I believe that I can fairly claim that we have helped in bringing about better understanding between the Nigerian Government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. There has been an unhappy estrangement between them in the past. It will serve no purpose to go over all the reasons for it, but there is now prospect of much better relations.

Mr. Tilney

How many neutral observers are likely to be required? Is there any difficulty about the countries from which they are likely to come?

Mr. Stewart

In view of the Federal Government's statement on this matter, I do not think that there ought to be any difficulty about this.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Why did a Foreign Office spokesman say last night that agreement had been reached when today that was denied by the Red Cross in Geneva? Secondly, why did the Government ignore the offer of the Biafrans, subject to international supervision, to put forward something which I suspect they know is unacceptable—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Is it not clearly in the interests of the Biafran Government that food should get in to feed their own people?

Mr. Stewart

I covered the first question quite accurately in my statement. I said that Professor Freymond confirmed that the Red Cross would be willing to operate daylight flights as now proposed by the Federal Government. That is the measure of agreement and it is a very important measure. But, of course, there was no written agreement. I went on to say "subject to detailed agreement on guarantees of safety for Red Cross crews, aircraft and personnel".

The Red Cross is entirely entitled to point out that written agreement on these details has not yet been reached, but, in view of the whole tenor of the conversation between Professor Freymond and Doctor Arikpo, at which, by invitation, my hon. Friend and officials from my Department were present, I have no hesitation in saying that they were all of one mind on the real substance. I agree that complete and detailed agreement has still to be reached.

As to what is acceptable or unacceptable to Colonel Ojukwu, I should like to put the matter at its very simplest. If there were a relief plane in Lagos filled with food, drugs, seeds and clothing, but nothing else, and ready to go in to the rebel-held areas, neither the Nigerian Government nor, certainly, Her Majesty's Government would raise the slightest objection—indeed, we would welcome it. The only reason at present why it could not go in would be Colonel Ojukwu's objection. I hope most earnestly that, in the light of his responsibility for the people now under his control, he will reconsider this.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Would the Foreign Secretary explain why no pressure has been put on the Nigerian Government, as suggested by the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Rogers, in a speech a few days ago, so that while these negotiations are going on relief could go in? It is now five weeks since a Red Cross plane was shot down by the Nigerian Air Force. Why is not the right hon. Gentleman putting pressure on the Nigerian Government, if he is capable of any pressure, for relief to go in now?

Mr. Stewart

This point was raised in the conversation between Dr. Arikpo and myself, that, pending the exact working out of the conditions for daylight flights, the Nigerians should allow night flights ad interim. Doctor Arikpo pointed out two genuine difficulties of the Nigerian Government over this. One is that we know perfectly well that every day on which there are night flights not only does relief go in but these flights are a cover for arms.

Secondly, there is this difficulty, and I ask hon. Members who are critical to bear with me for a moment. If the Nigerian Government agree for, say, seven or 14 days, or any other period, that there should be interim night flights while the arrangements for day flights are worked out, if Colonel Ojukwu chooses to drag his feet over the agreement for day flights, at the end of that time the Nigerian Government will be in the dreadful position of having to allow the night flights to go on indefinitely, or, in the face of the natural feelings of human beings, to say that they will now forbid night flights again.

Dr. Arikpo represented these difficulties to me. I told him that I hoped that, despite these difficulties, his Government would give this proposal the most serious and urgent consideration, and I believe that it will be one of the matters for discussion when the senior emissary of the Red Cross visits Lagos.

But I must say again—and this puts some of us Europeans to shame—that the Nigerian Government have shown a more merciful attitude about allowing food and medical supplies to go to their enemies than have many other nations. That inhibits me if I am asked to express censure of them, or to think of imposing any kind of penalty on them.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

The Foreign Secretary tells us that the Nigerian Government want guarantees that relief aircraft shall not be used for carrying arms. Is he aware that, having worked on similar tasks with the International Committee of the Red Cross for many years, I find it absolutely inconceivable that that Committee, whose integrity is of the highest possible order, would ever agree to allow arms to go in its aircraft?

What protest has my right hon. Friend made against the appalling atrocity committed by the Nigerian Government when they shot down a Red Cross aeroplane which was flying under an agreement with the Nigerian Government, shot it down without warning and killing four neutral Swedes engaged in humanitarian work?

Mr. Stewart

The Nigerian Government spontaneously expressed the view that this was a disaster. As for the inspection of planes, no one questions the good faith of the International Committee of the Red Cross, but one could not in reason ask the Nigerian Government to allow planes to fly in without having some opportunity to satisfy themselves that they did not contain solely what they were required to contain. These planes are operated not only through the Red Cross.

I ask my right hon. Friend, whose feelings in this matter I entirely respect, to see this matter in proportion. The Nigerian Government have genuinely striven to allow a blockade to be breached in a way in which no blockade has ever been allowed to be breached before. That deserves the sympathy and support of humane people everywhere.

Viscount Lambton

Would not the Foreign Secretary agree that the difficulties of this tragic situation have been increased by the undefined position of the Red Cross? Has not the time now come for an international review of the Red Cross with a view to defining its status and increasing its effectiveness?

Mr. Stewart

That takes me somewhat beyond my present position. The considerations which the noble Lord has in mind are important, but our immediate task is to make sure that reconciliation between the Red Cross and the Nigerian Government is complete and that we try to get the relief in, if that is possible. Then the wider questions raised by the noble Lord may need examination.

Mr. Winnick

I hope that the Nigerians and the Biafrans will quickly agree to relief supplies going in. However, in the meantime, while the arguments are going on, would it not be possible for the leading Powers, ourselves and the United States certainly, to mount a special airlift operation, in view of the threats to millions of people who may be dying of mass starvation within the next few days?

On the political aspect, if a Minister is soon to go from Britain to Lagos, would it not be possible for the same Minister to visit the Biafran-held area as well?

Mr. Stewart

The difficulty about this is that until comparatively recently Uli airport was deliberately blocked by the rebel authorities in daytime. With the best will in the world, one could not have got the relief supplies in. If they are to be taken in, it is imperative to have some degree of co-operation from the rebel authorities.

As to the politics of the matter, one is obliged to distinguish between a friendly Commonwealth Government and a group of people in rebellion against them, but, so that we should not be held to be taking too legalistic a view of the matter, at the beginning of this war we had a representative in the rebel-held areas, and he remained there until he was turned out.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are debating this subject on Thursday. I must protect the business of the House.