HC Deb 22 October 1979 vol 972 cc28-34
Mr. Newens

(by private notice) asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on British food aid and other assistance urgently required to relieve the critical famine situation in Cambodia.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Blaker)

Her Majesty's Government announced on 6 October that they had decided to supply rice worth £1 million for distribution in Cambodia; subject to parliamentary approval, to provide the equivalent of a further five million United States dollars for use by international relief agencies in Cambodia; and to provide an RAF Hercules aircraft to carry vehicles from the United Kingdom to be used for food handling and distribution in Cambodia.

The RAF Hercules has been making daily flights between Bangkok and Cambodia since 13 October, carrying vehicles and food. These flights have now been extended until mid-November.

Mr. Newens

Does the Minister accept that, with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps more, dying of starvation during the next few weeks, it would be disgraceful if insistence on continuing to recognise the appalling Pol Pot regime delayed or hampered the arrival of supplies of food and other assistance from this country? Are the Government prepared to increase the amount of money so far allocated for aid? Are they prepared to make part of it available through Oxfam, which has done a magnificent job? Will the hon. Gentleman look into the possibility of providing more transport to get the food where it is needed? In many ways transport is in as desperate short supply as the food itself.

Mr. Blaker

The question of recognition of one side or another in Cambodia has had nothing to do with decisions that the Government have taken about the provision of aid. Those decisions have been taken on humanitarian grounds alone.

As for the amount of aid, I think that we are doing pretty well. We are providing about £4 million-worth of aid. We announced this even before the official appeal by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Children's Fund, and it compares favourably with what other countries have announced.

With regard to Oxfam, no decisions have yet been taken—apart from the provision of the Hercules—about the channel through which our aid will be provided, but I have received a request from Oxfam for some of the aid to be channelled through it. I applaud the action that it is taking.

In speaking of transport, the hon. Gentleman correctly identified what is at present the main problem—logistics. We think that we are doing pretty well with the supply of the Hercules, the provision of which has now been extended for a further period. This has been very much welcomed by those in Cambodia and elsewhere in the area who are responsible for moving the food aid.

Mr. Tapsell

Whilst I fully support the Government's decision on humanitarian grounds, to send food aid to Cambodia, may I ask my hon. Friend whether we or any of our friends have any machinery on the ground to offer some hope that a large part of the aid will in fact go to starving refugees and not to the military forces?

Mr. Blaker

That is one of the problems. It has been in the minds of the various organisations concerned with making sure that the aid actually reaches its destination. The ICRC and UNICEF are now satisfied about that, as is Oxfam. It was very soon after the ICRC and UNICEF announced that they were so satisfied that the Government responded with their offer of aid.

Dame Judith Hart

Whilst I welcome the initial Government response, made with the background of the tremendous public concern and pressure in this country, may I ask the Minister a little more about the distribution and the way in which the aid is being channelled? He said—as we know—that UNICEF and ICRC are to receive some of it, but is not the important thing now—particularly in the light of the discussion by the EEC Foreign Ministers in Dublin this weekend, and what they have said—to use fully the agencies that are able most effectively to channel the aid to the starving people who need it? Does not that mean that the Minister and the Government should be extremely responsive to the request by Oxfam, which has proved to be a really effective channel?

Can the Minister give an assurance today that he will consider the Oxfam request, which is paralleled by requests by other non-governmental organisations in Europe, to channel a considerable proportion of the British Government aid through it, as the most effective agency at the moment?

Mr. Blaker

I agree with the right hon. Lady that the important thing is to ensure that the aid arrives at the proper destination—the starving people—by all possible means, in as large quantities as possible and as soon as possible. The evidence that I have is that the ICRC and UNICEF operation is now going effectively. They are satisfied that the aid is reaching its destination. They hope by the end of this month to have delivered 10,000 tons of aid and to double that figure next month.

I talked twice with Oxfam—once in Singapore and once in London, last week. I applaud what it is doing. I am following with close attention its efforts to set up an international consortium. As I have said, no decision has yet been taken about the channels through which our aid will go, but I am bearing in mind the Oxfam request. I repeat that it is important that there should be close co-operation between all organisations, whether Oxfam or United Nations organisations.

Dame Judith Hart

May I pursue that matter for a moment? I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said, but time is of the essence. It looks as though it may take a little time effectively to organise the channelling of food aid to ICRC and UNICEF. Oxfam is doing it already, but has run out of money. If Oxfam can be provided with extra money quickly, it can get the food in quickly. That does not prejudice what decision might be taken later about the UNICEF-ICRC aid.

Mr. Blaker

One of the main problems at present is the logistics problem. That is why our Hercules aircraft is so important. In general, that is a more important problem than the availability of food.

The ICRC-UNICEF operation is now going fast. It is now taking in more aid than the Oxfam arrangements. That does not mean that I am excluding Oxfam. When we are making up our minds about the channels through which we shall send our aid, we shall have to take into account a number of factors—for example, the ability of the organisation concerned to mount a sustained and large-scale operation to get the aid in. Another factor is whether the organisation concerned will be sending its aid in to all parts of Cambodia, regardless of the regime under which the starving people may be living.

Mr. Alton

The Minister tried to intimate that the amount of aid that arrives has little to do with which regime is recognised, but the international agencies have themselves suggested that until we dissociate ourselves from the Pol Pot regime, which has been responsible for 2 million deaths in extermination centres, the Heng Samrin regime in Cambodia will not allow the maximum amount of aid to reach the 3 million people who may well die there during the coming 12 months.

Will the Minister ensure that in her discussions with Chairman Hua next week the Prime Minister will place on the agenda as an urgent item the whole question of the dissociation of the Republic of China and the United Kingdom from the Pol Pot regime and the acceptance and recognition of the Heng Samrin regime, which controls 90 per cent, of the country and 90 per cent, of the people in Kampuchea?

Mr. Blaker

I repeat that the issue of which regime in Cambodia the Government recognise has had nothing to do with the Government's decisions on aid, which have been taken solely on humanitarian grounds. Britain still recognises the Pol Pot regime. It was recognised by the previous British Administration. I cannot understand why some seem to be enthusiastic about the Heng Samrin regime. Heng Samrin was a political commissar and a divisional commander under Pol Pot and his regime. However, that is not the issue. My information is that in the areas controlled by the Heng Samrin regime the aid is reaching its destination. That is the important matter.

Mr. Speaker

This is an extension of Question Time. I shall call those hon. Members who have risen and occupants of the Front Benches before bringing this subject to a conclusion.

Mr. Cook

Does the Minister accept that the previous Government recognised the Pol Pot regime because, for better or worse—in fact, very much for the worse—it was at that time in effective control of Cambodia? What possible excuse is there for persisting in recognising a barbaric regime that now controls only a fragment of the country. If the hon. Gentleman cannot bring himself to recognise the alternative regime, why did he not support the Indian initiative at the United Nations—namely, to withhold recognition from both parties?

Mr. Blaker

The issue is not recognition of one regime or another, but aid. However, the Heng Samrin regime came into Phnom Penh on the back of the Vietnamese Army. If the Vietnamese Army were withdrawn, it may be that it would collapse. The Pol Pot regime is still recognised by many non-aligned countries, including all the ASEAN countries, so we are not alone.

Mr. James Lamond

I leave aside recognition of the Pol Pot regime, as none of us would wish to use starving children as a political gambit. It seems that the Government have moved from their position of three months ago. Three colleagues and myself asked for help to be sent to Kampuchea and it was said that there was no money or food available to give help. The Government have moved from that position to a more tenable one of giving some help. Is the hon. Gentleman's mind still open to increasing that assistance, no matter what aid other countries are giving, instead of smugly suggesting that £4 million compares favourably with the value of aid given by other countries? After all, the British people spend on cigarettes on a Saturday night the sum that we are giving to hundreds of thousands of starving men, women and children in Cambodia.

Mr. Blaker

It is unreasonable to suggest that the Government are being smug. We have done extremely well. Our immediate response with the Hercules aircraft has been much appreciated in the area, as has our offer of £4 million worth of aid. We shall continue to follow the situation as it evolves.

Mr. Cormack

Is my hon. Friend aware that unless Her Majesty's Government have changed the criteria for recognition of a foreign regime it is totally incomprehensible that we should accord official recognition to a barbarous regime that controls such a tiny portion of Cambodia? Can we not withdraw recognition from both odious set-ups?

Mr. Blaker

The Government made it clear that recognition does not imply approval. As my hon. Friend will know, the previous Administration raised the question of the inhuman behaviour of the Pol Pot regime before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. They were supported by the then Opposition. Recognition has nothing to do with the provision of aid.

Mr. Shore

I think that the whole House will agree that relief should not be made contingent upon recognition of either of the claimant regimes. However, the Minister has put the House in something of a dilemma in understanding the Government's doctrine on recognition. If recognition does not imply approval, and if the Pol Pot regime controls 10 per cent, or less of the territory of Cambodia, how can the hon. Gentleman possibly continue according recognition to an odious regime?

Mr. Blaker

The policy that the Government are pursuing on recognition is identical with that pursued by the previous Administration, which recognised the Pol Pot regime. The control of territory in Cambodia in May was exactly the same, or more or less the same, as it is now. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to explore the Government's policy on recognition in general, that is another issue and no doubt he will pursue it.

Mr. Shore

That will not do. When recognition was accorded to the Pol Pot regime, irrespective of the feelings about that Government, it was because it controlled the whole of Cambodia. However, Pol Pot no longer has that control. Therefore, why should the Government continue to accord it recognition?

Mr. Maker

The right hon. Gentleman should know the principles that successive Governments have followed for many years on recognition. We are following those principles precisely. I have stated that the Heng Samrin regime took power on the back of the Vietnamese Army. If that army were withdrawn, the Heng Samrin regime might collapse.