HC Deb 28 February 1973 vol 851 cc1472-4
3. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether, having regard to the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, Her Majesty's Government will offer their good offices to facilitate the repatriation of Pakistani prisoners-of-war from India.

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

We have already made known our willingness to help with any of the problems over reaching a settlement in the subcontinent, if the countries themselves seek our help and are agreed on the rôle we should play. But, as my hon. Friend will know, India and Pakistan agreed at Simla last July to settle their differences through bilateral negotiations. This probably holds the best prospect of success for the present.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is not the holding so long after the ending of hostilities of perhaps 90,000 prisoners—if civilians are included—contrary to international convention, contrary to the canons of humanity and something of a Commonwealth scandal?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The subject of prisoners is a great human problem, and I am aware that the Pakistanis feel deeply about it. We want to get results. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that Dr. Waldheim has recently visited India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He said that he had useful talks in all three capitals and was impressed by the serious intent of all the parties to reach a settlement. I hope that this matter will be pursued trilaterally in the subcontinent.

Mrs. Castle

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that I made representations to him on this matter as far back as December and that the situation has in no way changed since his reply? Does he appreciate that feeling is running very high among the 4,000-strong Pakistani community in my constituency? Will he renew his efforts to get a solution to this problem?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, the right hon. Lady is quite right. I have already said that this is a great human problem. I have no doubt about the feelings of the Pakistanis. The problem is to get results, and to get them as quickly as we can. I have already told the House that the Secretary-General has recently applied himself to this task in the countries concerned. We must wait a little longer to see whether there is any useful action we can take over and above that.

Mr. John Hall

Will my right hon. Friend hazard a guess at the reason why the Indian Government are so reluctant to let these prisoners go, since this must be an additional burden on them which they must sustain?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The Indian Government would like to see the prisoners go as fast as they can, but they have a bilateral relationship with Bangladesh.

Mr. Edward Lyons

I appreciate the complex arguments and the disputes in that part of the world but ought not the right hon. Gentleman to make an approach in respect of the women, children and merchant seamen—the non-combatants—held and classed as prisoners-of-war, and urge his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the forthcoming Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference to raise with the Indian Prime Minister the possible release of all these prisoners?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir. We are in constant touch with the countries concerned. The Red Cross in India and Bangladesh has made arrangements for the transfer of civilians so that some Bengalis may go back to Bangladesh and others in Bangladesh who wish to go to Pakistan may do so. It is a continuing process. But I should prefer to get in touch with the hon. Gentleman to give him more details, if I may.

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