HC Deb 05 April 1971 vol 815 cc36-40
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a further statement about the situation in Pakistan.

Since I last reported to the House, the conflict in East Pakistan has continued. Our information about what has taken place is still not complete, but there can be no doubt that many lives have been lost. The whole House and country will join me in urging an end to the strife, a start on reconciliation and on the task of bringing relief to the injured and the homeless.

Over the past weeks, we followed with anxiety the course of political negotiations in Pakistan, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had expressed to President Yahya Khan his concern that political differences should be settled by agreement. We were aware of the endeavours of the President to achieve this end, and we hoped that he would be successful. We feared that violence would do permanent damage to the constitutional fabric of Pakistan. To our great regret, negotiations collapsed and military force was used.

We are deeply concerned at the loss of life and suffering of all sections of the Pakistan community and welcome the President's statement that his aim remains the transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people. It is our earnest hope that this objective will be achieved.

Her Majesty's Government have no intention of interfering in Pakistan's internal affairs, and I wish again to emphasise that this is our position. It is the people of Pakistan themselves who must decide their own destinies, and intervention from outside will only complicate a very difficult and distressing situation.

The British Government and public gave dramatic evidence of their deep compassion for the East Pakistanis who suffered in the cyclone last year. We again stand ready to play our part in an international effort to help in mitigating suffering in East Pakistan, should we be asked to do so.

The House will wish to know that we have still received no report of injury or damage to British subjects or property in East Pakistan, apart from the attack on the British Council premises in Dacca which I reported in my earlier statement. It has, however, not been possible to contact some British subjects known to be in outlying areas. In these circumstances, the Deputy High Commissioner advised that women and children and those whose presence was not essential should leave the country if, in their judgment, they could make the journey to Dacca in safety. As a result, about 100 United Kingdom nationals have left Dacca by air, by Royal Air Force and civil aircraft, since my last statement; and about 40 have left Chittagong by sea.

I should like to express my gratitude to the Deputy High Commissioner Mr. Sargeant and his staff in Dacca, to the members of the British community in East Pakistan, and to the members of the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Marine, who have been cool, resourceful and effective in a very difficult and dangerous situation.

Mr. Healey

The House will welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Government's intention to give material aid to those who are suffering in the present situation, and also what the right hon. Gentleman said about the evacuation already carried out of British subjects. We join in the tribute he has paid to those responsible for carrying out that evacuation so competently in such difficult circumstances.

In view of the very convincing reports of indiscriminate bloodshed in East Pakistan and the patent risk of external intervention in these events, may I underline to the right hon. Gentleman the importance of Her Majesty's Government using any influence they can bring to bear on the two issues to which the right hon. Gentleman has himself referred? These are, first, that there should be an immediate end to the bloodshed and, secondly, that there should be a peaceful solution of the political problems of East Pakistan in accordance with the wishes of the people of that territory, expressed with such remarkable unanimity in the recent elections.

All of us in this House will, I am sure, be deeply concerned about the physical safety of Sheikh Rahman and the other leaders of the people in East Pakistan. Has the right hon. Gentleman any information to give the House about their present whereabouts and situation? Can he assure the House that he will express to the Pakistan Government the desire of all of us on both sides of the House that people so recently elected with such an overwhelming vote should be treated with the respect they deserve in a democracy?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We will certainly use any influence we have to make clear that we hope that bloodshed will be ended as soon as possible. There have been elections quite lately and there was the intention of calling together the Assembly to frame a constitution. We hope that these processes can be resumed. Certainly, too, we are interested in clemency and justice, but the right hon. Gentleman will not ask me to make a judgment about the internal affairs of Pakistan.

Mr. Braine

While it is right that there should be no intervention in the internal affairs of a friendly Commonwealth country, is my right hon. Friend aware that the basic problem facing Pakistan is the sharp economic disparity between the two wings of the country? Is he further aware that the Select Committee Sub-Committee which went to Pakistan at the end of 1969 came away convinced that substantial outside help from the world community would be necessary if that disparity was to be corrected? Will Her Majesty's Government take any initiative in calling an early meeting with, or having discussions with, the World Bank and the Pakistan Consortium to see whether some definite and positive move could be made in this direction?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I have long been convinced, as everyone has, that a programme of economic development is necessary for East Pakistan. We are willing to play any part in an international organisation which would contribute to that end. The first thing, however, is to end the fighting and get back to some kind of political stability in the country.

Mr. Shore

We welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said about ending the strife and the need for reconciliation. Will he add something more about the safety of Sheikh Rahman and impress upon the Pakistan Government how essential it is to release the leaders of this freely elected democratic party so that the political process can be resumed?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not think that I can go further than to say that in our view there will have to be a political settlement. For that purpose there must be political talks. I cannot as a member of the British Government possibly dictate to anyone in Pakistan what form those talks should take.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

While fully supporting my right hon. Friend's declaration of neutrality and non-interference, may I ask him to use his influence to impress upon neighbouring States, including India, the necessity to follow a similar policy?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

As I understand it, the Prime Minister of India has said that India has no intention of intervening in the internal affairs of Pakistan and has cautioned people against creating new difficulties by talking of it.

Mr. Thorpe

All of us would agree that we should not interfere in the internal affairs of Pakistan, but while accepting that the Commonwealth Study Group—for reasons I will not go into—is not exactly a happy precedent, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would not nevertheless approach the Commonwealth Secretary-General to see whether there could not be some Commonwealth initiative for a form of mediation which would bring the two sides together?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

This must be a matter for the Government of Pakistan if they want any assistance.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the widespread feeling that Pakistan, after the events of the last few weeks, can never again be one country? Is he further aware that to take the view that this is an internal matter of a Commonwealth country—which in most circumstances would be perfectly proper and appropriate—is not in this context the right one, and that the British Government do have influence and should be using it to secure a cease-fire? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that there is a widespread opinion on both sides of this House—an all-party Motion to this effect secured over one hundred signatures today—that the right hon. Gentleman should use the significant influence he can exercise to ensure that the fighting in Pakistan ceases as soon as possible?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Certainly I respond to the hon. Gentleman's request. We will use all the influence we can. We are deeply concerned about the division of Pakistan. We believe that the division should be ended. I do not believe that it will be ended by external intervention, although it may be helped by private advice.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must now get on to other business.