HC Deb 18 January 1978 vol 942 cc451-9
Mr. Amery (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the Somali Government's request to Her Majesty's Government for arms, and his Department's refusal to accede to this.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

No reply has been given to the Somali Government's approach, which we received on Monday. We will consider the request carefully in consultation with our allies. We are at present not supplying arms to either Somalia or Ethiopia. The conflict in the Horn is complex in its history and damaging in its effect. We have worked actively for a negotiated settlement and believe the conflict should be settled within an African context and without outside interferernce. We have supported OAU mediation efforts. The British Government would be prepared to support an approach to the Security Council if this seemed likely to help work out a basis for a settlement.

Mr. Amery

While welcoming the Foreign Secretary's statement that no reply has yet been sent—I was, therefore, perhaps wrong in speaking of a request, which was based on Press reports this morning—may I ask whether he agrees that the conflict and the problems, great though they are, are largely incidental and that there is another essential matter? Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the build-up of Ethiopian arms, with massive supplies of Soviet arms and with Cuban and Soviet military personnel, constitute by themselves a threat to the area and a threat to peace in the area? Unless steps are taken to correct the imbalance which this constitutes there is a real danger that we shall be faced with another Angola situation under which Ethiopia and the whole of the Horn of Africa will become a province of Soviet imperialism. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that this would be a matter of very grave concern to the oil consumers in the West and in Japan, to the oil producers in the Gulf and to countries such as the Sudan, Egypt, Israel and Kenya and that it would dramatically affect their development?

Dr. Owen

I agree that this is a very complex issue. I also agree that the build-up in recent weeks of arms and men inside Ethiopia from outside the African continent could well turn what has been a very complex and damaging territorial dispute in Africa into an East-West issue. I do not believe that it is in the interests of anyone, let alone the Soviet Union and the West, for this dispute to become an East-West issue, but as that build-up proceeds, so it will inevitably become one.

On a number of occasions I have urged the Soviet Union and other countries to leave this issue to the OAU and to let it remain a dispute between Ethiopa and Somalia. I believe that the territorial integrity of countries must be respected. The way to abolish boundaries is by peaceful negotiation and not by armed aggression. What is now needed in this complex problem is mediation and the willingness between Ethiopia and Somalia to negotiate a settlement.

Mr. James Johnson

As one who has visited the Ogaden since the fighting began, may I say that I support my right hon. Friend's position in this complex situation at the moment? Will he tell the House what contingency planning he has in mind in the event of Mengistu and his Marxist régime building up aggression with the aid of 2,000 or 3,000 Cuban and Soviet advisers and massive numbers of MIGs and tanks flown from Aden? In the event of those forces getting to the Somali border and proceeding on to cut a land corridor to the Indian Ocean, what is our position then? Is any Anglo-American axis action open to us?

Dr. Owen

Just as I have made my position clear to the Somalis about the Ogaden, so this afternoon I shall be seeing the Deputy Foreign Minister of Ethiopia. I shall be making it quite clear to him that were the Ethiopian forces to constitute any force from outside the continent to include Somalia territories, that would be a development of the utmost seriousness which all of us in the West would be bound to view with grave concern. I shall leave him under no illusions about the dangers of that sort of adventurism.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

While I agree about the complexities of the situation, surely the Somalis are just as good a customer for British arms as the Salvador Republic? Surely, in this moment of crisis for these people, this is the time when it will be in our interests to sell them arms?

Dr. Owen

As the House knows, we have not hitherto been supplying arms to Somalia since they ceased to have their arms supplied by the Soviet Union. The reason was that we felt that where there was a territorial dispute, and where there was a question about armed aggression, we should stand by the principle embodied in the OAU statement that this sort of territorial dispute should be solved peacefully. But there are reasons why we take the position that we have taken. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, we are now faced with a different request in changing circumstances, but the cause of the dispute is still something of which the West should take account.

Mr. Litterick

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is widespread support on this side of the House for the principles embodied in the remarks that he made a few moments ago? Bearing in mind, as we on this side do, that in the quite recent past hospitals in Eritrea have been destroyed ruthlessly by bombing raids mounted by British manufactured bombers supplied by a previous British Administration, does not this underline the Secretary of State's point that the accumulation of arms in these countries makes inevitable the destruction of human lives and property and does nothing constructive to the settlement of international disputes?

Dr. Owen

My hon. Friend is right to point out that a further complexity in the problem is the Eritrean dispute, apart from the Ogaden dispute. There are many other countries about which we have great concern, not least the concern of Kenya. We have to take into account the feeling of the countries in the area. Although an East-West issue may become involved in this—I regret that it is—we must not lose sight of the fact that this is also a regional and African problem which is best solved by the normal mediation of the OAU.

Sir Bernard Braine

Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that, despite his sensible and moderate remarks this afternoon, many of us find it difficult to stomach the indifference of not only this country but the whole of the West to the sufferings of the people of Ethiopa and Eritrea at the hands of the Ethiopean military régime? If it be the case that it may well be right not to sell arms to Somalia for the reasons hinted at, why do not the Government go to the United Nations and charge the military régime with the crimes that it has been committing against the Ethiopean people? Why do we stand indifferently on the sidelines?

Dr. Owen

I have not stood indifferently on the sidelines. I share a great many of the sentiments which the hon. Gentleman has expressed about some of the things that have been happening inside Ethiopa. No one would wish to come to this Dispatch Box and defend some of the practices going on in that country. I shall leave the Foreign Minister in no uncertain doubt about my views on that issue as well when I see him this afternoon.

Mr. Faulds

Will my right hon. Friend consider his response carefully? Does he not agree that the Somalis deserve our support because over the last century the Ethiopians have indulged in territorial aggrandisement at the expense of others. Is it not also the case that our Arab friends—this is not an unimportant point—are sympathetic to the Somalis, and that the Somalis have recently and sensibly turned against the Soviets?

Dr. Owen

I find myself agreeing with much of that. It is in our interests and a beneficial development that the Somalians should have turned to their traditional area of friendship—the West. We welcome that. In no way do we wish to build up antagonism with Somalia. I saw the Somali Vice-President in November and I made it clear to him that we would continue to give aid to his country, and that we would even be prepared to increase aid. In that way we were demonstrating our wish to have friendship with the people and Goverenment of Somalia. However, I pointed out that this did not mean we could underwrite it by supplying arms to support the action taken in Ogaden.

Mr. Thorpe

Could the Foreign Secretary clarify the suggestion that Russian naval vessels have been bombarding Massawa? Does this not add a new and dangerous element to the situation? Although one accepts that the OAU States are the principal parties involved, would it not be sensible for the Government to refer the matter to the United Nations under Chapter 7 as a threat to peace, and call for an arms embargo?

Dr. Owen

I am prepared to consider going to the Security Council, but there is no point in going unless there is general background support for such an initiative. We have kept this matter under review for the past few months. I have read the reports of shelling by Soviet naval vessels, but I have no evidence to confirm or deny these reports.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Will the Foreign Secretary explain to the House what he meant in his original reply when he said he did not intend to let this become an issue between East and West? Surely the threat of Soviet imperialism in Africa generally, and the particular threat to British shipping and oil supplies, are there for all to see. It sounds as if the Foreign Secretary is serving notice on the Soviet Union that he will not do anything at all and that the Soviets will have a free hand.

Dr. Owen

I did not say that, nor did I intend that meaning. I said that I regretted that this had become an issue between East and West and that we should not allow the dispute to become totally focused on East-West factors to the exclusion of other problems. I am aware that the dispute is being used by forces outside the African continent in a damaging way. I have spoken of the dangers of supplying arms in sophisticated quantities in these circumstances, and it is ironic that both Ethiopia and Somalia have been supplied with Soviet arms. It is dangerous to introduce advisers or troops from outside. This form of adventurism has, in the past, served to increase the instability of the African continent, and I deplore this.

Mr. Newens

In view of the fact that the Foreign Secretary has agreed that there is an increasing danger of the struggle being in the interests of outside Powers, will he not agree that it would be completely immoral for Britain to agree to supply arms? This would only fuel the conflict in which desperately poor people on both sides would kill one another on an accelerated scale in no interests that could, in any remotely conceivable way, be their own. Would it not be totally immoral for us to supply arms in these circumstances?

Dr. Owen

We have tried to apply principles to our past decisions on the supply of arms, and we have kept these principles in mind in studying these requests. We must take account of the changed geo-political circumstances. There is no doubt that the central point here is not the supply of arms but the need to bring the parties in the dispute to the negotiating table and to resolve the problem. The history of some of these border problems in Ogaden in Eritrea goes back a very long time, and it is difficult to see the way clear to any negotiated settlement. However, some way must be found.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall call the four hon. Members who have been constantly rising to their feet since the beginning of the statement.

Mr. Blaker

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Western Powers should make it quite clear to the Russians that, as in Angola, their conduct is inconsistent with detente? The Soviets cannot expect to enjoy good political relations with and economic benefits from the West if they continue to behave in this manner.

Dr. Owen

Yes, we have the ability to make this clear to the Soviet Union. We have not purely and simply supported our friends. We have made it clear to the Somalis that the way to solve the dispute is not by fighting on Ethiopian territory. This makes a stronger case for our saying that we resent outside intrusion and would take very seriously any Russian threat to Somalian territory. We have made it clear that we believe that the dispute can be resolved only through mediation. I also made this clear to Mr. Gromyko when I visited Moscow and we had discussions about the Horn of Africa.

Mr. Hooley

Does not the Foreign Secretary agree that it would be the height of folly for us to pour arms into the Horn of Africa and recreate a Vietnam situation? Will he raise the matter with the Security Council with a view to encouraging top-level diplomatic meetings between the United States and the Soviet Union in order to bring down the temperature in the situation?

Dr. Owen

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. If there is the necessary and immediate consensus among OAU members it would be possible to go to the Security Council, and this would seem to be a logical step.

Mr. Higgins

As one who has recently visited Kenya, I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary appreciates the grave concern felt in that country about the possibility of the British Government providing arms. Will he take this into account, given the fact that Kenya is the keystone in opposing Communism in Africa?

Dr. Owen

I am grateful to the hon. Member. Many hon. Members in this House have friendship with Kenya. I realise that if we supplied arms this would cause grave concern to the Kenyans. There is an outstanding territorial claim by Somalia to Kenyan territory. In recent public statements the Somalis tried to reassure the Kenyans about this because they are so involved. In any decision that we made to supply arms feelings would run very strongly against us. I believe that the Kenyans want good relations with both Ethiopia and Somalia, and they want to see the dispute resolved peacefully.

Mr. Rifkind

Will the Foreign Secretary agree that Soviet and Cuban imperialism are now the only sources of external threat to the independence and integrity of African States? In order to avoid another fiasco like Angola, will he ensure that these matters are raised in the Security Council before and not after the battle is over?

Dr. Owen

I am in favour of using the United Nations. But if one goes outside the OAU it only makes it more difficult for the OAU to mediate. If OAU mediation can succeed, I support it. I have backed developments during the past few months, and important attempts have been made to resolve the dispute, though none of them has been successful. If the African countries support going to the Security Council, that would be much better. Some African countries, such as Nigeria, have played an important part in trying to bring about mediation.

Mr. John Davies

We Conservatives welcome the clear statement that the Foreign Secretary made that there is a risk of total disagreement and difference between East and West on this serious issue. We welcome his saying that because we have in mind something that the Foreign Secretary said when he was in Moscow, which surprised us. He said that he welcomed the identity of interests between Britain and the Soviet Union in Southern Africa. Therefore, we were pleased to hear his realistic view of the situation this afternoon.

The generality of experience is that the Western response to these threats has been tardy and too little. Does the Foreign Secretary think, as we do, that to rely too long on the conciliation of the OAU may prove entirely illusory? Will he agree that the problem is that it appears that the Americans have not deferred their reply to the arms request? Is it his understanding that the Americans have said that they would not supply arms? In that event the Russians are bound to feel that they have a free hand.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary will make every effort, along with his friends in Washington, to see that the Soviet Union is left in no doubt that every possible step will be taken to ensure that Soviet domination in the Horn of Africa is not increased, with all the immense dangers to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) referred.

Dr. Owen

I do not know whether the Americans have replied. I have no information on that, but I know that we are discussing the matter with them and I would be surprised if they have given a definitive reply on the démarche in Mogadishu.

In regard to what I did or did not say in the Soviet Union—and I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman raised that matter—it must be taken in context because it was considerably quoted out of context. I was paying tribute to the fact that only a few weeks earlier the Soviet Union had accepted the Security Council's resolution on Rhodesia. That is very different from the way in which the right hon. Gentleman put the matter.

I made it clear when in Moscow that I thought that the Horn of Africa was a potentially serious area of conflict and that I would strongly criticise any attempt to involve outside Powers or to make it into an East-West issue. At that time I said that I hoped the Soviet Union would not follow that course. The Russians know that we have not been uncritical of some of the actions taken by the Somalis in regard to Ogaden. We believe that the way to deal with this matter is through negotiation. The Soviet Union is under no illusion that if it wishes to create in the Horn of Africa some new-found form of imperialism, it will be resisted. Equally, we must resist the temptation of seeing this complex issue solely in terms of East-West politics.