HC Deb 11 May 1971 vol 817 cc206-13
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

Last Thursday, during business questions, the Leader of the House was asked by the Leader of the Opposition whether I could make a statement about the situation in Pakistan which might assist hon. Members in the debate which is to take place on Friday. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should now like to do so.

In previous statements to the House I have expressed Her Majesty's Government's concern about the situation in East Pakistan and our wish to assist in alleviating the suffering and stress.

Within East Pakistan communications have been disrupted as a consequence of the recent strife and there may well be food shortages later this year, particularly in areas already affected by last year's cyclone. I repeat that Her Majesty's Government stand ready to play a part in any international relief effort, and that it is our view that this can best be organised through the United Nations.

After consultation with the American Secretary of State, I recently sent an agreed message to the Secretary-General of the United Nations in which we suggested that he should approach the Government of Pakistan to renew his offer of international humanitarian assistance. U Thant is in touch with the Pakistan Government on the problems of relief.

I hope that they will be ready to allow a team of experts to make an objective appraisal of what is needed and that they will be prepared to accept assistance, if that is judged to be needed, on an international basis. Clearly, any relief effort must be made with the agreement and co-operation of the Government of Pakistan. We are, of course, ourselves in close touch with President Yahya Khan about the situation.

There is the separate problem of aid and assistance to the Pakistan economy in general. Pakistan faces serious economic difficulties, including shortage of foreign exchange. Consultations about these problems are proceeding within the framework of the aid consortium under the chairmanship of the World Bank, and decisions about future action must await the result of these consultations.

There is, finally, the problem of the very considerable number of refugees who have crossed from East Pakistan into India. Already a consortium of British charities had decided to offer assistance. They asked for Government assistance to transport supplies necessary for health and shelter. I decided that Her Majesty's Government should make an immediate contribution, and this has been done. Supplementary provision for approximately£18,000 will be sought in due course and, if necessary, an advance will be made in the meantime from the Civil Contingency Fund.

The Indian Government have since approached the United Nations for assistance over the refugees, and a United Nations team is now in India to assess the need for international help. As with the other two problems which I have mentioned, I consider that this matter is best handled by international organisations.

Mr. Healey

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that statement, which will be useful in our debate on Friday. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree with the advantage of involving the United Nations in this problem. Indeed, some of the dangers in prospect might well justify the United Nations concerning itself with some of the political aspects of the problem, no less than with the relief aspects.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the bald terms of his statement conceal a human tragedy which has few precedents in recent history? Is it not a fact that there are already 1½million refugees in West Bengal who, according to Indian Government estimates, will require£25 million per month to feed? Is it not a fact that even more people require assistance in East Pakistan itself?

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that aid is now getting through to those in need in East Pakistan? Is he aware that a Red Cross aeroplane loaded with medical supplies was refused permission to land and that there are well authenticated reports that a large volume of stores is already stocked in Chittagong, but that permission has not yet been given for these goods to be distributed to those in need?

Does he agree that little can be achieved to relieve the suffering in this area or, indeed, to aid the economy of Pakistan unless there is a rapid movement towards a political settlement of the problem, in conformity with the wishes of the people of East Pakistan, as recently expressed in democratic elections?

As he promised when I last questioned him on this matter that he would make a statement, would the right hon. Gentlemen tell us whether Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is in prison in West Pakistan awaiting trial? Does he agree that if Pakistan is left without democratic leadership, other forces may take over and that this could be a disaster not only for Pakistan, but for the whole of the sub-continent.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

As the right hon. Gentleman says, this is, of course, a very real human tragedy. The scale of it, considering the number of refugees in India and the possible problem of the relief that may be necessary later in the year, is very great and, therefore, it justifies bringing in the United Nations, which is perhaps the only body that can handle it, and that, I hope, will be done.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question about a political settlement is that this must be for the people of Pakistan. Nobody from outside can dictate it. As I have said, we have been in constant touch with the President of Pakistan about the need for a political settlement. That is the only way, in the end, to solve the problem. But this must be for the President and the people of Pakistan.

Mr. Healey

Would the Foreign Secretary answer the specific question that I asked? Has he any information about the refusal by the authorities in Fast Pakistan to allow distribution of medical supplies and other assistance already available?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

One consignment from the Red Cross was refused entry by the Government of Pakistan. The difficulty, so we understand, of distributing the food which is at present there in sufficient quantities is one of communications, and the distribution, according to our information, has to be done at present by the Pakistan Army, and this in itself presents difficulties. That is why I urge that the team should go in as quickly as possible to assess the need and to see how food can be got to the people. The other problem does not arise at the moment.

Mr. Woodhouse

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Charity Commissioners in this country have ruled that money in the Pakistan Flood Relief Fund may not be used for relief in the present calamity? If the objection to that is purely of a technical character, would my right hon. Friend indicate whether it may be possible to remove it?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have looked at this matter. It would be very difficult to remove it after the conditions applied. One of the areas worst affected is, in fact, the cyclone area, and if we can get the food moving, certainly the money subscribed for that purpose can be used.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that we welcome his recognition of the importance of the United Nations as the appropriate agency for relief? Further, is he aware that reports of appalling atrocities are still coming out from East Pakistan? Can he say whether Her Majesty's Government can take some further initiative, either through the Commonwealth Secretariat or through the United Nations, for a team of observers either to establish or to disprove these disquieting allegations?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

At present, I do not think that it would be helpful to ask that observers should be admitted to Pakistan. We have no reason to believe that they would be accepted. As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, six international journalists are being let in this week, so more information will come from the country.

Sir F. Bennett

All other considerations apart, would the Foreign Secretary agree that the precedents show, without any doubt, that however well-meaning an attempt to interfere politically in the affairs of another Government may be, the result is counter-productive for the people themselves?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Without generalising, in this particular case that I am dealing with private representations are certainly better than any public statements.

Mr. Shore

Can the Foreign Secretary clear up this matter and say whether relief and aid personnel have free movement in East Pakistan at present? What response has he had from the Pakistan Government to the representations which we hope he has made about a political settlement and respect for democratic decencies in Pakistan?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The response that we have had is the desire and wish, as expressed by the President, that there should be a political settlement and that talks should be resumed between representatives of East Pakistan and the President. We must hope that this will take place. As for the introduction of aid into East Pakistan now, the great trouble is the lack of communications, which have been almost totally disrupted in the last three months. When they are restored, aid will begin to flow.

Mr. Marten

Would my right hon. Friend agree that one of the long-term problems will be the 3 million refugees who fled from East Pakistan to India, and their resettlement back in East Pakistan? If the situation in East Pakistan deteriorates rather badly, the situation will become similar to that which has arisen in Ceylon, where North Korea has been operating pretty sharply.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

If the situation were to deteriorate further in East Pakistan, the consequences would be as my hon. Friend describes. The hope must be that some kind of political stability is restored, in which case I am sure that those who are now in India would wish to return and to resume the work which they were doing.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the view of the majority of people who are very familiar with the situation—I cannot claim to be so, but I have visited the area—is that East Pakistan is embarking on what is likely to be a very long war and that the situation creates grave dangers of war between India and Pakistan? Does the Foreign Secretary accept that this is not a situation analogous to a civil war in one country but it is a matter of aggressive war by West Pakistan against East Pakistan? Does the Foreign Secretary accept that this is a situation in which two countries have voluntarily joined and one half has demonstrated overwhelmingly that it wishes to separate itself? The matter should be treated as an aggressive war between two countries rather than as a civil war in one country.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We must not be led into statements as to whether the results of the elections in East Pakistan favoured secession. There are different interpretations. It is not for me to make them. Political settlements must he arrived at by the people of Pakistan. We profoundly hope that this will happen. There is little that we can do to influence that. That is why I have concentrated today on the humanitarian aspects, in which we have a part to play.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is my right hon. Friend aware that General Chaudhuri, of the Indian Army, writing in the Hindustan Times, has expressed exactly the opposite view to that of the hon. Member for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann)? May I ask my right hon. Friend whether it is not the case, in times past, when there have been difficulties and scarcities, that there has been a movement of refugees across the frontier and a movement back when normal conditions have been restored? Is not there ground for hope that this will occur again?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

There is a hope; but it has not happened yet. The attitude of the Indian Government has been strictly correct in the matter of their relations with their neighbouring country.

Mr. Foley

Would the Foreign Secretary direct his attention to the plight of East Pakistan refugees in India? Has he no means of assessing the dimensions of the problem? Is he informing the House that the sum of the contribution made by Her Majesty's Government to the relief of the distress of East Pakistani refugees in India is£18,000? Is this the total contribution?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

That is what we were asked for by the organisations concerned, to fly in the supplies which they had waiting but could not transport. So for this purpose, quite appropriately, as the House will agree, we supplied the money and they were, therefore, able to do so. The Indian Government have now asked the United Nations to take over the management of the problem of refugees. We think that is right.

Mr. Dalyell

Would the Foreign Secretary turn to the specific question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey, namely, the issue of the medical supplies that are held up in Chittagong? While we can understand that there are transport problems elsewhere, it seems inconceivable that, if they wanted to, the Pakistan Government could not move those supplies out of Chittagong to other places.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We are making inquiries on this matter to see whether medical supplies can be moved. The hon. Gentleman should not underestimate the dislocation of communications that has occurred. For example, our Deputy High Commissioner was unable to go from Dacca to Chittagong until quite lately, in the last day or two. This is a real problem.

Mrs. Hart

May I ask the Foreign Secretary about the attitude taken by the British representaives on the Pakistan aid consortium? Looking to the future, I ask whether he is instructing our representatives to concentrate, in the light of extreme economic inequalities between East and West Pakistan which have been part of the reason for the present difficulties, upon project aid specifically directed to East Pakistan rather than to West Pakistan?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The right hon. Lady will not underestimate the problem of solving the existing problem of development, let alone looking for new ones. This will be a very expensive project. But development projects for the future of East Pakistan are immensely important in the context of the whole country.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am afraid we must get on.