HC Deb 06 December 1971 vol 827 cc937-44
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 statement.

The outbreak of hostilities between India and Pakistan is a matter of deep concern to Her Majesty's Government and to all Members of the House. We have watched with growing apprehension over the past months the deterioration in relations between the two countries, stemming from the situation in East Pakistan. Despite our efforts and those of other Powers, India and Pakistan have been driven to the calamity of war. Our immediate concern must now be to try to stop the fighting, and to contribute to a sane and civilised solution that takes account of the wishes of the peoples affected.

When we heard the first reports of attacks and fighting on the borders of India and West Pakistan on 3rd December, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister appealed to President Yahya Khan and Mrs. Gandhi to do all within their power to prevent the spread of conflict. We are also in touch with other Governments.

Reports on the military situation are confused. It is clear that extensive fighting is taking place within East Pakistan and on the borders of West Pakistan and India, and that the navies and air forces of both countries are engaged. To the extent that it is possible in modern warfare, it appears that the civilian population has not been the object of attack from the air.

The House will know that the Security Council met on 4th December and again yesterday to consider the situation. It was clear from the start that any resolution calling for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of forces would attract a Russian veto. For their part, Her Majesty's Government have taken the view that there is nothing to be gained by prematurely attempting to introduce abortive resolutions which are bound to be vetoed by one country or another. We are, therefore, doing all we can to look for ways of overcoming these difficulties and of finding a solution to the desperately complicated issues which gave rise to the outbreak of war. These efforts have not so far, in the United Nations, been successful, but we shall continue them. The United Nations must have a rôle to play not only in the search for ways to stop the fighting but also in the immense task of reconstruction that will follow.

There have been no reports of injury to United Kingdom nationals or damage to United Kingdom property in either India or Pakistan, although damage to tea gardens may be inevitable. On 23rd November the High Commissioner at Islamabad advised United Kingdom nationals in the border districts of Pakistan to consider moving to safer areas while this was possible. Since the outbreak of the fighting he has taken account of the air raids, the restrictions on movements and the suspension of civil air flights, and has advised United Kingdom nationals to say where they are. No evacuation from Pakistan or India is contemplated at present. I am, however, keeping the situation under review, and will take any action that is necessary.

War can only be a tragedy for all the people of the sub-continent. We shall do all within our power to persuade those concerned of this view, and of the need to tackle the task of reconciliation.

Mr. Harold Wilson

In thanking the Foreign Secretary for making this statement at the earliest possible opportunity, may I ask whether he is aware that, speaking for myself, I feel that he has the right to expect the backing of the House in what can at this stage be only an interim statement on the Government's position? He is right to say, I suggest to the House—and some of us heard him giving his first reactions on the radio at lunch time yesterday—that no good purpose, least of all hopes of an early ceasefire, would be served by taking a definitive attitude on the political solution that must come or, for that matter, seeking a declaratory resolution which will almost certainly attract a veto from one side or other in the Security Council.

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that in the view of many of us here, whatever the views which have been or may be taken by hon. Members on both sides about the merits in the dispute, Britain's influence, both with our Commonwealth connections and through our close and intimate relations with the two countries involved, has its best rôle to play by being used with them and with other major Powers, and not by coming to premature decisions about political postures?

With reference to the Foreign Secretary's remarks about the tragedy that it is for these two countries, as he will know—and I know that he shares this feeling—the whole House will be thinking first and foremost of the many millions who have suffered, in a matter of months, successive uprooting from their homes, violence, floods, almost total famine, cholera, latterly the intense cold, and now war. It is of them that we shall be thinking.

The House will welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the fact that up to now there have been no reports about British nationals. No doubt he will take an early opportunity to inform the House if there is any change in that position. It must be a matter for Her Majesty's Government and this country's representatives on the spot to advise whether and when evacuation should be put into effect.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman about the question of arms supplies, both national and international. He will agree that Britain will have to have a national policy on the matter, but I am sure that he will also agree that for Britain alone to take action might well be meaningless without the agreement of all other major countries to enforce whatever policies can be agreed. Can we take it that the right hon. Gentleman will make a further early statement and that as soon as he can he will indicate the Government's thinking on the question of an arms embargo?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the question of a debate should be discussed through the usual channels in this spirit: that the sense of urgency that the whole House feels need not be best measured by the speed with which a debate is mounted, and that we should have the opportunity to hear another statement at least from the right hon. Gentleman, and have some more clarification of the position, before there is any suggestion of a major debate in the House?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentle- man for what he has said. We had better discuss the matter of a debate through the usual channels, and we can keep in close touch on that. I am sure that everyone in the House will wish to have a debate at the right time, but its timing will be important.

I very much agree that when we know in advance that declarations and resolutions in the United Nations will be vetoed it is futile to pursue them. Simple anodyne resolutions will have no affect on the situation on the ground. All that we can do, therefore, is to continue the discussion with those who want to see a peaceful solution and perhaps arrive at the greatest consensus possible.

I will certainly keep the House informed from time to time on the safety of British nationls. When there is the possibility of air attacks on airfields, only the High Commissioners or Deputy High Commissioners can be the judges of what is to be done and at what time.

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about arms. Many countries are selling arms to both countries. I should like the opportunity to take the matter up in the United Nations to see whether there can be some kind of international control in the circumstances. I am also reviewing our own policy, as the right hon. Gentleman requested.

Mr. Sandys

Since the continuation of the fighting is bound to result in slaughter and suffering on a calamitous scale, will the right hon. Gentleman bring home to the Russian Government that the whole world deplores any action which results in obstructing progress towards a cease-fire?

Hon. Members

What about the Chinese?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Everyone would like to see a cease-fire and a standstill and then negotiations between the parties for a peace, but it is unfortunately a fact that such resolutions would now be vetoed by one country or another, and we know this in advance. Therefore, we must look for more of a compromise, but it is a very difficult task. Certainly, we are making clear to the Russians our feeling that they should co-operate if it will assist.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House is appalled at the tragedy and shares his view that the worst thing at this stage is to pass judgment?

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman three questions. First, since the present Government and their predecessors have an honourable and generous record of assistance to refugees, will the Government actively consider contingency plans which may come into operation when the need arises and when we can give such aid? Second, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm for the record that no arms are being shipped by the Government to either side at present? Third, is he aware that, since China is in treaty with one of the disputants and Russia with another, and whilst this country has the friendliest relations with both Commonwealth nations, it will very probably be in the Security Council that the initiative must be taken to bring about a cease-fire and that any moves in that direction taken by Her Majesty's Government's representative at the United Nations will have the widest possible support in the House?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

As to aid and making contingency plans, we will certainly review the generous intentions that we had, and other countries will have to do so as well. The United States has cut off economic aid, so the whole question will have to be reviewed.

I should like to look into the question of shipments of arms, and I will make another statement to the House later on.

As for the United Kingdom resolution, we are now discussing with our friends whether this is possible in a desire to get the greatest possible consensus in the United Nations and the Security Council. I would rather make a further statement on progress to the House perhaps tomorrow or the next day.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Whilst I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend has said about the danger of trying to do things through the United Nations only to run into a veto, will he do everything he can to ensure that the closest possible co-ordination of policy is arrived at between Her Majesty's Government and the United States, not least bearing in mind that there appears to be a division in the Communist world as to which side is in the right or in the wrong, and also bearing in mind that the United States was to some extent involved in the Chinese occupation of Tibet?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We will certainly keep as close as we can to the United States Government in this matter. Various people threaten to operate the veto on any resolution which includes the word "withdrawal"; I have told the right hon. Gentleman that the Russians are among them. A number of countries would like the word "withdrawal" in, and any resolution not containing it would be immediately vetoed by the Chinese. It is a very difficult problem to which to find a solution, but I will bear in mind what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Stonehouse

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept congratulations on his wisdom in not supporting the United States proposal before the Security Council and also accept that it is facile for the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) to suggest that the continuation of the dispute is the fault of the U.S.S.R.? Does he agree that the failure of the world community to accept the rights of the people of Bangladesh to self-determination is partly to blame for the outbreak of war, and that the sooner the world recognises the right of the 75 million people of East Bengal to have their own State the more likely it is that the conflict will be brought to an end?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I cannot go into the politics of the matter. Our efforts must be concentrated on trying to stop the fighting, and quickly.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

What is the true figure of British nationals evacuated from East Pakistan?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

There was a report of the evacuation of 589 British citizens from East Pakistan by ship. The proper number was two.

Mr. Barnes

Is it not the case that any cease-fire and withdrawal of forces which does not leave the way open to a genuine political settlement in East Bengal will achieve nothing? Though it may be harsh to say it, may it not be the case that the interests of the people of East Bengal and of stability in the area will be best served by an Indian military victory in East Bengal?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his own opinion, but I must not comment on that.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Will my right hon. Friend define a little more closely the present status of the matter before the United Nations, as to whether it has been treated as a chapter VI or chapter VII matter? If my right hon. Friend is pessimistic about action in the United Nations because of the veto, does he not think that Britain is uniquely well placed, by reason of her membership of the Commonwealth and of her having refrained from assigning blame or taking sides, to play a part both in conciliation and in an initiative for an embargo on arms?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We shall certainly wish to play a constructive part in conciliation. We are still searching for that part; as I said, it is not at all easy to find. I said that I will look into the questions of arms supplies—and I must consult other countries about this matter under what chapter any resolution in the because arms are flowing in to both sides from many countries. The question of United Nations might fall depends on the terms of the resolution, and no one has yet arrived at a resolution which is acceptable.

Mr. Bottomley

I recognise what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the need for exercising caution in political action, but is it not possible for him to take the lead in co-ordinating and organising a massive aid programme? Unless this is done, millions will die of starvation in the next few months.

Sir A. Douglas-Home

A massive aid programme was, so to speak, planned against the day when there might be famine in East Pakistan. Since then some very serious things have happened—for example, cancellation of the American aid programme. So we shall have to review the matter again from the start. I very much hope, with the right hon. Gentleman, that we shall be able to achieve an aid programme which will meet the difficulties into which this country is likely to fall.

Mr. Tilney

As an international force of some kind will ultimately be required to take up ground between the com- batants or to help in reconstruction, will my right hon. Friend say whether any action can be taken now to ensure that such a force would be immediately ready once the situation was opportune?

Sir A. Douglas-Home

The attempt to organise observers on the frontier of East Pakistan and India has failed and been rejected. I will make inquiries on the question whether a force will be needed to assist when hostilities are over.

Mr. John Mendelson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that anyone who has listened direct to the transmissions from the Security Council and heard the highly biased contributions of the Soviet, Chinese and American delegates will warmly support the Government's attitude in refusing to be identified with either side? But does he accept that there is an urgent need to make progress with the arms embargo and that it would be monstrous if Powers preferred to continue to support both sides with arms supplies? Is he aware that it is absolutely essential to ensure, if there is a political solution in East Bengal, that India is told, even at this late stage, that many of her lifelong friends will expect her to stop fighting short of total victory?

Sir A. Douglas-Home

I am so surprised at support from the hon. Gentleman that I am left practically speechless. It is too early to look forward to what the political solution may be. The immediate task must be to try to arrange in the United Nations, and to use the assistance of Commonwealth countries in arranging, a cease-fire, a truce, and then peace talks. But I cannot in honesty disguise from the House the difficulty of it.

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