HC Deb 13 December 1971 vol 828 cc43-50
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 hostilities between India and Pakistan continue. Indian forces have advanced deep into East Pakistan, have captured the town of Jessore and have now virtually surrounded Dacca. Fighting is also continuing on the border between India and West Pakistan, particularly in the Chumb area where Pakistan forces have penetrated into Indian territory.

As the House is aware, seven British subjects were killed and six injured when a British ship was attacked in Karachi harbour on 9th December. In a message to the Prime Minister, the Indian Prime Minister has expressed her great regret for this attack and we are seeking compensation. Apart from this tragic incident we are not so far aware that any other British lives have been lost.

I am happy to say that the airlift of British subjects and other foreign nationals from Karachi, Islamabad and Dacca is now complete. This means that, with the exception of a small number of United Kingdom nationals in Khulna, Chittagong and elsewhere, about whom urgent inquiries are being made but some of whom appear to have taken the decition to remain, all those British subjects wishing to leave Pakistan have now done so. Over 1,300 persons were airlifted out of Pakistan by the Royal Air Force in three days; this was no easy task and in the case of Dacca in particular it was carried out in circumstances of considerable difficulty and danger. I am sure the House will wish to join me in expressing congratulations and thanks to all those in the Services and in our posts in the subcontinent who were involved in this fine achievement. Our Deputy High Commissioner and a residual staff remain in Dacca.

Since the fighting broke out we have reviewed our policy on arms sales, and, as I promised the House on 6th December, we have been in touch with the Governments of countries who have been main suppliers to India and Pakistan. I must report that as a result of these contacts there is no prospect of any general embargo on the sale of arms. That being so, I have considered what our own attitude should be.

There is, as the House knows, no military aid to India. As for sales, the Indian Government have a number of long-term contracts with commercial firms for the supply of military equipment. These are subject to export licence, the grant of which is being kept under constant review, in the light of the existing circumstances, including the state of hostilities in the sub-continent, the situation at the United Nations and the attitudes of alternative suppliers. As far as Pakistan is concerned we have not been a regular supplier of arms for Pakistan for some years. Therefore there are no similar contracts. The same supervision would be given to any orders from Pakistan which may be placed here.

The House will be aware that there have been a number of efforts to bring about a ceasefire as a prelude to a political settlement. All resolutions in the Security Council however were vetoed; and a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of the forces of both India and Pakistan to their own territories which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 7th December, has proved ineffective. For their part, Her Majesty's Government believe that it is necessary to seek practical means of bringing the fighting to an end which take account of the realities of the situation and the attitudes of the parties. We are, therefore, in touch with other members of the Security Council to see how we can best assist in bringing about the earliest possible end to the fighting and the institution of constructive discussions.

Mr. Healey

First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement? The whole House will wish to join him in congratulating Her Majesty's Services; and, indeed, the diplomats concerned, because it is clear that their rôle was almost as important as that of the Services in carrying out this evacuation with such extraordinary skill and success. I have one question for the right hon. Gentleman. Many Members of the House will have been disturbed to read stories that the passports of many of the civilians evacuated have been confiscated. I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman would make a statement about this. Is there no better way of ensuring the necessary contribution to the cost of the evacuation by those concerned?

On the question of arms supplies, we on this side of the House feel that the position taken by Her Majesty's Government is both wise and necessary, and while it is important to keep a close eye on the fulfilment of existing orders, it would be quite wrong to carry out a unilateral embargo on arms supplies to one of the parties to the dispute when there is no certainty that other arms supplying countries will follow suit.

Finally, may I also congratulate the right hon. Gentleman again—I cannot guarantee to continue in this tone of congratulation for the rest of the afternoon—on the attitude taken by Her Majesty's Government at the United Nations. I think that all of us will feel that this is no time for inflammatory gestures, and it is very important for Her Majesty's Government to maintain a position which may, at some stage in the future, give them an opportunity of making a constructive intervention with the support of both sides to the dispute.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman, particularly for the tribute he paid to the members of the diplomatic staff, who have done really superb work under very trying conditions. Yes, there must be a better way than impounding passports. Of that, I am quite convinced, and I shall look into this matter urgently. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments on the very difficult question of arms supplies. We gave this a great deal of thought. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition raised this point a week or two ago. I think that we have come to the right answer. I shall keep a very vigilant eye on this all the time. We came to the conclusion, like right hon. Gentlemen opposite, that it was no use taking part in ineffective posturings in the United Nations and that we should do better to await a chance for more effective action, which may come in the course of the next few weeks.

Mr. Jessel

Would my right hon. Friend say how many British subjects are in Chittagong and Khulna, and whether they are in any danger?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

As far as we know—and this is uncertain—there are about 16 in Chittagong and some nine in Khulna, I think. On previous occasions a good many of that number decided to stay when offered the chance of evacuation. They may decide to stay again. We are looking at the matter carefully and trying to see how many want to go.

Mr. Barnes

Will there not be a huge task of reconstruction and rehabilitation to be carried out in Bangladesh and is it not vital that that task should begin as soon as conditions there permit? Has the Foreign Secretary had any discussions with the Indian Government about the contribution which Britain can make to that task?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not know whether the hon. Member was present during Question Time, but it was then made clear that the situation has changed a good deal, and the whole question of aid to East Pakistan will have to be reconsidered, with, among others, the Americans, who have temporarily, at any rate, cut off the additional aid which they were going to give to India or Pakistan. We shall have to look at this from the start. I am well aware of the large problem which will be presented to everyone.

Mr. Wilkinson

In the Security Council will my right hon. Friend be on the side of the Americans in urging a withdrawal of forces and a cease-fire—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—before further blood is needlessly shed? If India and her friend and mentor the Soviet Union are eager for India to continue hostilities until they obtain their military and political objectives, will he then consider a unilateral embargo on the further sale of arms to India to bring pressure on that country?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not think that it is a question of being on the side of the United States or any other country. We have to make up our minds ourselves on what is the best rôle which Britain can play to help to bring about a ceasefire and an orderly political settlement following that.

Mr. Cronin

In view of the hopeless military situation of the Pakistan forces in East Bengal, will the right hon. Gentleman consider using his good offices to secure a negotiated withdrawal of those forces? Will he also bear in mind the danger of communal massacres after a cease-fire and adopt an attitude of some reserve towards the withdrawal of the Indian Army from East Bengal?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

All these dangers are present in the minds of everyone in the House, and communal rioting, even outside East Bengal, has been one of the very greatest dangers of all. Mercifully, this has not happened so far, but we have closely in mind all the questions my hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

As the country most responsible for what is happening, through the partition of India, and the country with most experience of the conditions in India and Pakistan, does not my right hon. Friend agree that we should take the initiative in calling a conference of the Heads of State of the two countries at present at war with each other, with a view to discussing the problems of not only the so-called Bangladesh but also Kashmir? Should not we take the initiative of asking the two Heads of State—as was done by Mr. Kosygin in 1965 and 1967—to convene a conference where those two Heads of State can get together to discuss the matter, at the same time as a cease-fire?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion. I think that he is looking a little far ahead.

Mr. Tinn

Will the right hon. Gentleman say what progress was being made in the high-level consultations between the United Kingdom Government and the Pakistan Government with a view to the promotion of a political settlement, up to the time of the Indian invasion?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We were using any influence we had to try to achieve a satisfactory political settlement. I think that the hon. Gentleman will realise the difficulties there are in this matter, in so doing.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on the phrase in his statement where he said that the great necessity now is a realistic approach to this situation, and on his clear disassociation from the United States and others who are trying to force various issues which are now no longer of any validity whatsoever. Surely the main thing now is to avoid further bloodshed, and surely that can best be done by moving on lines similar to those proposed by Mrs. Gandhi.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We must look for the opportunity of successful constructive intervention, and I think that will come sooner than we think. I must reserve the Government's judgment on that matter just now.

Mr. Shore

Now that East Bengal is on the eve of its liberation, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what contacts have been made with the Bangladesh authorities pending recognition and if those contacts, in the right hon. Gentleman's view, are likely to be helpful in dealing with the present problem?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We must at present deal with the Governments of India and Pakistan. The right hon. Gentleman is well aware of our normal criteria for recognition, which have to be applied in this case, as in others.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Following up a question which I put to my right hon. Friend the other day, may I ask him what steps he is taking to bring as balanced a picture as possible to the knowledge of the United States especially bearing in mind that those who have known both India and Pakistan over many years have certainly left me with the impression that in this case India had no alternative but to do what she has so far done?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I had an opportunity of talking to Mr. Secretary Rodgers about this at the North Atlantic Council. My hon. Friend knows that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are going to Bermuda shortly, where I hope to have another talk with Mr. Secretary Rodgers.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that we on the Liberal bench wish to be associated with the congratulations to our forces on the superb efficiency of the airlift and also to the members of the Diplomatic Corps who are remaining on in Dacca in difficult circumstances?

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that I agreed with his neutral position last week. However, does he agree that it is important that this is not impaired by the supply of arms? Is he aware that the statement that the grant of export licences is being kept under constant review can mean anything at all? Will he say whether we are supplying arms at this moment?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Since 10th December there have been two consignments, one by ship which will take a long time to reach India. I cannot go beyond saying that I will keep a very close eye on the licensing system. Most of the supplies were ordered by India as longterm contracts and are concerned with India's long-term rearmament programmes. I repeat that I am keeping a close eye on the supplies which might be asked for in the next few days or weeks.

Mr. Braine

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all of us in the House approve his realistic approach and the initiatives that he has taken with the United Nations, but is he aware that the action taken in the invasion of East Pakistan has superimposed on an unhappy province already suffering from acute food shortages the additional burden that the Indians will simply occupy a desert of misery and deprivation? Has my right hon. Friend, therefore, taken any initiative with the United States Administration in regard to contingency planning for famine relief, perhaps quite soon?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The opportunity to talk to Mr. Secretary Rodgers will come in a few days' time. I will take that opportunity to talk to him on this question, because obviously a big problem will be presented, not only to the consortium, but to the whole world, which will wish to help.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Will the Secretary of State explore the possible opening provided this weekend by the separate statements of the leaders of both sides that they would be prepared to withdraw their troops from East Bengal if the other side did?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We shall have to wait a day or two before we can make a judgment on those statements. Statements have been made from West Pakistan, on the one side, and by Mrs. Gandhi, on the other. This may develop in the next day or two, but I cannot comment on those statements now.