HC Deb 03 February 1971 vol 810 cc1671-5
Mr. Denis Healey (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether in view of the urgent threat to the neutrality of Laos he will make a statement on the action taken by Her Majesty's Government as co-chairman of the 1962 Geneva Agreement on Laos.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

Communist North Vietnamese forces have been making extensive and illegal use of Laotian territory for a long time in flagrant violation of the 1962 Geneva Agreement in order to further the war in South Vietnam. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary told the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) on 25th January, Her Majesty's Government have made abundantly clear on repeated occasions their willingness to take any action, either as Geneva co-chairman or in any other way, which might help end the war in Indo-China. Unfortunately, the Russian co-chairman has shown no willingness to agree to joint action.—[Vol. 810, c. 34.]

Mr. Healey

While accepting that the neutrality of Laos has been violated for some time by North Vietnamese forces, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he accepts that the majority of people in this country, and, I believe, throughout the world, would regard it as a tragedy if needless suffering were inflicted on the innocent people of a country so far not directly involved in the Vietnamese conflict? For this reason, will the right hon. Gentleman answer three questions?

First, have Her Majesty's Government, as co-chairman of the Geneva Agreement, been approached by the Government of Laos about their attitude to the events now in progress? Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman has just declared his desire to take action with the Soviet Union, has he on this occasion approached the Soviet Union with a view to take common action? Thirdly, can he say whether the United States Government have consulted Her Majesty's Government about the events now in progress?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Nobody wants to see the extension of this war. We have not yet been approached by the Royal Government of Laos. We are ready to take action at any time— and I made this clear to Mr. Gromyko when he was in London—to call the Geneva Conference if he would agree. But he has made no response at all to this approach.

We have no information from the American Government or any other source about the military action at present taking place, I think outside Laotian borders.

Mr. Healey

But would not the Foreign Secretary accept that it would be regarded as a great tragedy if there were to be the needless death of thousands more human beings in South-East Asia through aerial bombardment at this stage in the American withdrawal? As the Soviet Government have already expressed their concern about the events now in train, will not the right hon. Gentleman, as co-chairman, take the initiative to see whether it is possible at this late date, after so many disappointments, which I concede, to get the British and Soviet Governments to carry out their obligations under the 1962 Agreement?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I have several times taken the initiative with the Soviet Foreign Minister. Each time he has said that he will not co-operate. I say publicly that I would be only too glad if he would come forward at any time and cooperate in trying to end this war. I regret that he has shown no signs of doing so.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) said that the slaughter in this war may be increased in a part of Laos. That may be true. The North Vietnamese Government cannot escape the responsibility for starting the war.

Mr. Mendelson

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there are definite reports from the semi-official Japanese news agency Kyodo that 4,000 to 5,000 South Vietnamese parachutists and several thousand Thailand troops, accompanied by American military planes and helicopters and with the direction of some American military officers, have invaded Laos and that there has been no request from Prince Souvanah Phouma for any military aid from outside? Will the right hon. Gentleman express the opinion of the large majority of the people of this country that this further extension of the war under American instruction is creating new dangers and imposing new punishment upon innocent people? Will he not get hold of some courage and let the Government in Washington know that the majority of the British people disapprove of this extension of the war?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The hon. Gentleman said at the start of his question that this information was semiofficial. It has not been corroborated so far. I shall not say what the situation is because I do not know. But there are operations near the frontier. The information is that they are not over the frontier into Laos. When the hon. Gentleman seeks to lay the blame on one side or the other, he must remember that in Laos and in Cambodia the Communists violated the neutrality first.

Mr. Goodhart

Can my right hon. Friend remind the House of how many protests have been made by hon. Members opposite in the last eight years at repeated incursions into Laotian territory by North Vietnamese forces?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

It is a fact that North Vietnamese forces have constantly violated the neutrality and broken the arrangements of 1962.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Is the right hon. Gentleman telling the House that the embargo on information which apparently affects the American Press extends to the British Government? Is he also saying that the British Government acquiesce in this embargo which is obviously designed to allay protests in the United States?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am saying that information has not arrived on which I can give an accurate opinion to the House.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

The Foreign Secretary will agree that the devastation which has laid waste so much of Vietnam in the last few years should not be allowed to spread first to Cambodia and then to Laos if it is possible for our Government to do anything to prevent it. In these circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman take a current initiative—that is, an initiative on the basis of the current reported events—to inquire from the American Government what their current position is and then approach the Soviet Government afresh with a view to recalling the Geneva Conference?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Of course that can be done, but the Soviet Foreign Minister knows perfectly well that he has only to send word to me that he would like to activate—[Interruption.]—because he is co-chairman with me. I have invited him to come forward at any time he thinks fit and tell me that he is ready to reactivate the machinery of the Geneva Agreement. He has simply said to me so far that, in his opinion, the time is not appropriate. The moment the time is appropriate I shall be glad to hear from him, and no doubt our ambassador has told the Soviet Foreign Minister this since I met him in London.

Mr. Healeyrose

Mr. Speaker

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me first to call one of his hon. Friends who has risen several times? Mr. Allaun.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the 400 bomber saturation raids on Laos have caused many times the Mai Lai casualties? In view of that, will the Foreign Secretary protest—never mind the Russians—to Washington, where the main cause of this war lies?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his point of view, but I happened myself to negotiate this agreement and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the ink was hardly dry on that agreement before the Communists broke it; they remained in Laos from which they were supposed to withdraw; and never from that moment have the Communists tried to keep that agreement at all.

Mr. Healey

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for reminding the House that he has personal responsibility for maintaining the neutrality of Laos as the man who negotiated on behalf of the United Kingdom this particular agreement. While understanding, though not approving, his reluctance to take further action till the reports of the crossing of the frontier are confirmed, may I ask him, in view of the feelings expressed in this exchange of questions, whether he would assure the House that, if it proves to be the case that there has been a large scale crossing of the frontier by South Vietnamese forces, he will take the initiative in seeking to meet the Soviet Government to try to bring this tragic conflict to an end?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Of course, I will always consider any further action which I might reasonably take, but I do not see how I can reasonably go further than say privately and publicly to the Soviet Foreign Minister that I am willing at any time, as he approaches me, to reconvene, if that is to his satisfaction, the Geneva Conference in order to try to deal with this matter.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Walker—statement.