HC Deb 14 January 1980 vol 976 cc1222-33
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on Afghanistan.

In the view of Her Majesty's Government, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on 27 December was an unprovoked act of aggression against an independent country. It represents a serious threat to world peace and an unprecedented development in the history of post-war Soviet expansion. The Soviet Union acted, to establish a military hold on a sovereign country, in violation of the international principles which the Soviet Union constantly calls on others to observe. The Soviet Union justified its act by alleging prior foreign intervention. Yet the only intervention has been the Soviet invasion.

In our view, it is essential that our allies and ourselves should draw the right conclusion. The Russians have shown, more vividly than ever before, that, when they have the chance of gaining positions of power in developing countries, they are willing to put at risk their relations with the West. Non-alignment is no protection against their appetites. We can expect in our view, further Soviet interventions elsewhere unless the international community shows clearly that acts of this kind cannot be undertaken with impunity.

With these considerations in mind, we are developing our own response.

First, we fully supported the action taken in the United Nations Security Council. The letter to the President of the Council was signed by 52 States. Now a number of Third world countries are pressing their arguments in the General Assembly using the Uniting for Peace procedure. This rallying of opinion in the Third world is a new and important factor.

Second, in Afghanistan itself, we have recalled our ambassador in Kabul for consultations. We have ended our aid programme in Afghanistan, though Afghan students now in this country may complete their courses. We have closed the British Council office in Kabul. We have provided relief aid—tents, blankets and medical supplies—to help the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who now total about 400,000. This aid arrived on Friday.

Thirdly, we are considering the necessary firm and calculated response to the Soviet Union. The Government welcome the measures announced by the President of the United States. We believe that the United States must not be alone in its firmness. Her Majesty's Government have therefore been reconsidering all aspects of British-Soviet relations. On 31 December, the United States presided at a meeting in London, attended also by the United Kingdom, Canada, France, the Federal Republic of Germany and Italy to discuss what steps might be taken. Discussion has since continued in Brussels among members of the North Atlantic Alliance.

The measures which might be undertaken by individual Western countries include the curtailment of high-level and ministerial meetings and other important contacts with the Soviet Union. Suitable measures in the economic field are also being considered. It is highly desirable, in our view, that the measures by Western countries should be concerted, especially in the economic field, where solidarity with our Community partners will be particularly important.

These matters will be discussed tomorrow at a meeting of Ministers of the European Community in Brussels which my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal will attend and also at a meeting, also tomorrow, of the North Atlantic Council, which I and Ministers from some other member countries will attend. We will of course keep the House fully informed.

Finally, we saw an urgent need to consult and express support for our friends in the area. My right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary is at present visiting Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan and India. He is discussing the current situation with their leaders, seeing the problems of the region at first hand and reassuring our friends and consulting them about the right response. He is due in Islamabad this evening and will be going on to Delhi before returning to London later this week.

In our judgment, this is not a time for either panic or weakness. The Soviet Union has launched into an unprecedented foreign adventure. The chances of such an adventure being repeated will be reduced if it is met with a firm and concerted response. The Soviet Union cannot expect relations with Western Europe to continue unaffected while it invades and subjugates independent countries of other continents.

Mr. Shore

The House will be grateful to the Minister for taking the first possible opportunity to report on these grave events. We have no hesitation in condemning the Soviet armed attack on Afghanistan and we reject as totally unconvincing the flimsy justifications that have so far been offered. Is the Minister aware that we fully support the action taken in the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations to rally opinion in the Third world and elsewhere, but will he give special attention in considering economic measures to the importance of securing concerted action from other major Western countries?

Can the Minister tell us, in particular, what initial responses have been received from Germany, France and Japan? Will the Government, in approaching non-Western countries in the Gulf and elsewhere, have in mind the danger of thinking simply in military terms, and, in the sub-continent in particular, the crucial importance of India and the need to avoid exacerbating tensions between India and Pakistan? Finally, does not the Minister agree that, although we must react positively to these events, it would be premature and unwise to abandon our long-term goals in arms limitation and detente?

We have had, necessarily, only an interim statement. I understand that there is to be a debate. May I urge the Minister and his colleagues to arrange that debate as swiftly as possible? We all need to share our knowledge and our advice on these grave events.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his words. I agree with him about the need to concert economic measures. I think that all hon. Members will agree that it is not much use Britain taking unilateral economic measures if the result is simply to transfer business from British firms to those of our competitors. The right hon. Gentleman rightly stressed the position of India. That is why my right hon. and noble Friend is going there this week. The right hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that the military aspect of life and of the danger here is not the only one, but, by heavens, it is one. We would be remiss if we did not consider that aspect along with the others.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman referred to arms limitation. There is now a framework of discussions and negotiations going on in this area. Those negotiations, into which the West has entered because to do so is in the interests of the West, will be continued, but it would be misleading the House not to say that this whole process has been greatly overshadowed by what has happened in Afghanistan. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard what the Leader of the House said about a debate next week, which we of course would welcome.

Mr. Onslow

Will my hon. Friend confirm that among the economic measures which may be under consideration are some which would be both effective and obvious, such as the removal of landing rights at Western, particularly British, airfields for Soviet aircraft and the closing of ports to Soviet ships?

Mr. Hurd

I would rather not go into great detail today about the kind of economic measures which will be considered at important meetings tomorrow. We shall of course keep the House informed. Perhaps I should add, in response to my hon. Friend's general approach, that it is not only a matter of ordinary trading relationships with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has over the years acquired in some respects a rather privileged position: thanks to the common agricultural policy, it has received certain quantities of subsidised food and, thanks to the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), it has received generous credit terms.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Is the Minister aware that we entirely share his condemnation of Soviet action in Afghanistan? When Her Majesty's Government made representations to the Soviet ambassador, what explanation did the ambassador give for the intervention—given that it was presumably made at the invitation of President Amin, who thereafter was promptly shot?

The Minister referred to a really alarming number of refugees—close to half a million. Does he have any information about the extent to which this number is increasing, and what action is he taking in that regard?

Finally, the Minister referred to the need for Community solidarity and to the meeting tomorrow in Brussels. Why, therefore, was the meeting on 31 December confined to only four Community countries?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Member is perfectly right in his first remark. The Soviet ambassador called upon my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and she took the opportunity to tell him that the explanations which he and others had given of the Soviet action were, in our view, absurdly flimsy. The other point on which the hon. Member touched—about the timing of the request and the fact that, as we understand it, the man who was supposed to have made it was dead within 24 hours—makes it a form of explanation which no hon. Member would accept.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the increasing number of refugees. Each time that I see a figure it is a bigger one. The figure of 400,000 is alarmingly large. The immediate step that we have taken to provide help, along with others—in the form of food, medicine and blankets—has, I think, been welcomed.

There are many aspects to this business of consultation, as the hon. Gentleman, with his experience, will know. There is a NATO aspect and a community aspect. The United States felt that the first reasonable step was to call together a number of the countries principally concerned to begin this process of consultation, which has now branched out into a whole number of other organisations. We thought that that was reasonable.

Mr. Tapsell

If the Soviet Union continues with its present policy of savage aggression against the people of Afghanistan, will the Government consult their allies as to what should now be our policy towards Cuba and towards the Cuban forces in Africa and South Yemen?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend's question shows that what has happened in Afghanistan should cause us, and has caused us, to look again at the whole state of our relationships with the Soviet Union and its friends and supporters in other continents. This will take a bit of time, but he is right to show that the consequences are not confined to Afghanistan itself.

Mr. Heffer

Is the Minister aware that many of us—I think most of us—on the Opposition Benches feel that the Soviet action in Afghanistan is totally against every principle of the right of nations to self-determination and against the principle of Socialism and democratic development? However, will the Government make certain that we do not move into a situation where we could begin to become involved not just in a cold war but in a hot war in which there would be no victors but only vanquished, and when the vanquished would be the people of the world? Let us approach this matter in a sensible and balanced manner and not get into a situation that we cannot get out of, in which only a hot war would be the answer.

Mr. Hurd

The chances of the Soviet Union being deterred from repeating an adventure of this kind, and therefore the chances of peace, depend upon everybody—particularly perhaps people such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)—being very strong in condemning what has occurred. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman was strong at the beginning of his question, and I hope that he will keep it up.

Mr. Cormack

Does my hon. Friend agree with Vice-President Mondale and the Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Clark, that it is now unthinkable that the Olympic Games should take place in Moscow?

Mr. Hurd

This is a matter not for Governments but for the sporting authorities and for the athletes themselves. Nevertheless, we believe that it should be considered in the context of what has happened. I am sure that it is one of the matters that will come up at our meetings tomorrow.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Is the Minister aware that participation in the Olympic Games in Moscow will be seen by the Russian people and by the Soviet Government as condonation by us of their naked aggression in Afghanistan? When the Minister meets our allies and other interested countries to discuss this matter, will he put to them, on behalf of the British Government, that the British people will play their part in underwriting any additional cost incurred by the International Olympic Committee in moving the Games from Moscow to an alternative site?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important possibility that should be considered. I see that the International Olympic Committee has come out against moving the games from Moscow and I note that the Prime Minister of Canada has said that this option should be considered. Canada will be represented at tomorrow's meeting and we look forward to considering this aspect with the Canadians. Some people are rather too glib in using the slogan that politics should be kept out of sport. Those people should realise that to the Soviet Union the holding of the Olympic Games in Moscow is a major political event.

Mr. Whitney

My hon. Friend rightly stresses the importance of acting in the closest possible concert in economic matters against the Soviet Union. When he meets his colleagues tomorrow, will he examine the possibility of extending the list of COCOM items forbidden by the Western nations for export to the Soviet Union? I have in mind particularly items of high technology such as oil extraction equipment and microprocessors.

Mr. Hurd

I do not doubt that that will be considered tomorrow. It is, above all, an area in which when we act we must act together.

Mr. Cook

Will the Minister confirm yesterday's press reports that as part of the British response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan we have agreed to an expansion of the United States naval base at Diego Garcia? Is he aware that when such expansion has been previously discussed most coastal States along the Indian Ocean, including the previous Administration of Mrs. Gandhi, opposed such expansion? Will he bear in mind in responding to the Soviet invasion—which he has so justly condemned—that it would be most unfortunate if we offended those nations which are most intimately affected by such an expansion?

Mr. Hurd

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the United States has, by agreement with us, a facility in Diego Garcia. Any expansion of that facility would also have to be done by agreement with us. No such further agreement has been concluded.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Will my hon. Friend confirm that any reprisals or sanctions imposed on the Soviet Union will not be without cost to certain firms and people in this country and that such cost would be willingly taken on board by the people of this country? That cost will be nothing like the suffering of the 17 million Afghans or that of the Soviet Union's neighbours, who must now be living in fear.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend is right. Any economic measures are likely to have some effect on people in this country. That is why it is essential that such measures should be, so far as is humanly possible, taken together with other countries. For the reason given by my hon. Friend, we cannot say that we will take no action in the economic context. It is essential, if we are to achieve a firm and concerted response, that economic matters should be considered particularly when one recalls that in certain aspects of its economic relations with the West the Soviet Union has been in a privileged position.

Mr. Winnick

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that military intervention is wholly wrong, whether by Russia now, by Russia in Czechoslovakia in 1968, by the United States in Vietnam and various parts of Latin America, or indeed by a Tory Government who decided to invade Suez in 1956?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman is taking us back a bit, but the principle at stake is a cornerstone of international law and I agree.

Mr. Aitken

Will my hon. Friend confirm that during December his Department and the United States State Department were aware of the massive Soviet troop build-up on the Afghanistan frontier? Does he agree, with hindsight, that it might have been more effective if the Western diplomatic process had been more forceful during that period? Does he further agree, in the light of the new situation, that it is essential that if there are further Soviet troop movements in this area diplomatic activity must be more forceful and pre-emptive in future?

Mr. Hurd

I would rather follow the tradition of successive Governments, and of the House, under which we do not discuss such information. However, I entirely agree with the general thrust of my hon. Friend's second question.

Mr. Dalyell

Since the Minister is a fair man, will he reflect on his uncharacteristically snide reference to the former Prime Minister and the Russian loan? That loan was welcomed at the time by many Members on both sides of the House. In his statement the Minister used the phrase "unprecedented foreign adventure". What thought have the Government given to why these hitherto careful men of the Kremlin—whatever else one thinks of them—embarked upon this adventiure? What do the Government say are the reasons for such an adventure?

Mr. Hurd

Unless my memory is entirely wrong, in 1975 Her Majesty's Opposition strongly criticised the credit arrangements made by the then Prime Minister as being wholly uncalled for and over-generous. Parallel arrangements, unfortunately, had been made by other countries. It is essential that we now act together in the period following the expiry of those arrangements.

As to the words "unprecedented foreign adventure", the hon. Gentleman has touched upon one of the most disturbing aspects of the matter. It appears that the rulers of the Soviet Union came to the conclusion that they could, with impunity, move into a country which until not long before had been a neutral sovereign State. The Soviets believed that the West's response would be wholly inadequate. We have to prove them wrong, because that is the only safe way to deter them from making the same calculation again.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that the Government's excellent reaction to this world shattering event is all the stronger because during the election and in opposition the Conservatives stood totally opposed to Soviet imperialism and in favour of increasing defence expenditure? Does he appreciate that the British people will be firmly behind the Government if they deal with the Soviet Union more realistically? Does he realise that detente can be strengthened only by plain speaking on all sides?

Mr. Hurd

I agree. During consultations in past weeks many people from other countries have begun their discussions with us by saying how right the Prime Minister and her colleagues were to draw attention, long before this event, to the real nature of the Soviet threat.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the two Opposition Members who have been standing and a further three Government Members. It was indicated by the Leader of the House that there was likely to be a debate on this matter next week.

Mr. James Lamond

Is the hon. Member aware that some of us take the spurious indignation and alleged concern of Western Governments, including that of the United States, with a pinch of salt because we recall the attitude taken by those Governments when the People's Republic of China invaded Vietnam less than 12 months ago? Then we saw no widespread reaction such as we have seen in the last few weeks. Is the Minister confident that any economic measures that we may take against the Soviet Union will be as successful, and have as strong backing from Conservative Back Benchers as the sanctions we took against Rhodesia?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman may take what view he likes of the reactions of Western Governments. I hope that even he will take some account of reactions of the Third world Governments who have taken the initiative in the United Nations, first in the Security Council and now, as it were, by overriding the veto, in the General Assembly. They have expressed their indignation and alarm. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will study what has been said by Third world leaders. Perhaps he will leave his analysis of our economic measures until they have been announced.

Mr. Hordern

Will the Minister re-examine carefully the line of credit extended to the Soviet Union by the Gov- ernment led by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson)? Does not the entire cost of the subsidy element fall upon the British taxpayer? Could not the principal of the debt be abolished or given to another country by way of overseas aid? Is there any reason why we should continue to extend this line of credit to the Soviet Union? Why do we need to consult other European countries before we cut it out altogether?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend. Fortunately, the arrangement expires on 16 February. We need to discuss with our allies and competitors the basis on which we trade and give credit to the Soviet Union thereafter.

Mr. John Home Robertson

Will the Minister hesitate and consider carefully before taking any action which will identify our interests too closely with those of the appallingly repressive regime in Pakistan?

Mr. Hurd

We have long and friendly ties with Pakistan which now feels to be under a desperate threat. That is the essential fact.

Mrs. Knight

One of the answers which my hon. Friend gave will occasion great concern. I beg him to reconsider it. He said that it was for the athletes and the Olympic authorities to decide where the Olympic Games should be held this year. Does he accept that this is of the gravest importance to all those who remember what happened after the Olympic Games in 1936 and the tremendous fillip which they gave to Nazi Germany?

Mr. Hurd

I made a statement of fact. Governments can advise but they cannot decide on this issue—at least not in the free world. The question whether we should advise will probably be discussed tomorrow.

Mr. Lawrence

Overwhelming support will be given to the measures which the Government are taking, but is my hon. Friend aware of the strong feeling in the country that we should not send our athletes to Moscow for the Olympic Games? Will he do more than advise or seek advice? Will he make a positive statement of leadership from Britain which makes it clear that we are against sending our athletes to Moscow?

Mr. Hurd

I note what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Sainsbury

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in addition to sporting connections, a large number of non-Government organisations have continuing contacts with the Soviet Union? Does he accept that the Soviet Union is adept at using those contacts for propaganda purposes, as it is with sport? In those circumstances, what advice can he give to those organisations about the action that they should take?

Mr. Hurd

This is an important point. Of course my hon. Friend is right. There is a large range of contacts by various organisations, including local authorities. It is for them to make their own decisions. We say that they should examine carefully their plans and the appointments in their diaries. Where there is a specific or practical objective to be gained, they may decide to go ahead, but if they plan to go to the Soviet Union for the sake of it we hope that they will not go.

Mr. Ancram

In the light of my hon. Friend's previous reply and the growing concern expressed by the Pakistani community in the United Kingdom, what measures are the Government considering to help to protect the integrity of Pakistan, if that is necessary?

Mr. Hurd

It is probably sensible to reserve comments upon that until the Foreign Secretary comes back from Pakistan, where he is today. I imagine that this will be one of the matters raised when we debate the matter more fully, probably next week.