HC Deb 24 January 1980 vol 977 cc655-69
The Lord Privy Seal (Sir Ian Gilmour)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on Afghanistan.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is an event of the widest significance. For the first time since the Second World War, Soviet combat troops have been used in massive numbers outside Europe to establish a military hold on a sovereign, non-aligned country.

The Soviet action is a breach of all the conventions that have governed East-West relations for the past decade. It is a vivid demonstration of the Soviet drive to gain wider influence wherever possible, by propaganda, by subversion, and, where necessary, by force.

Together with the arrest of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr. Sakharov, it reflects cynical disregard for world opinion. It is bound to affect our attitude in current and future negotiations between East and West, though we naturally want these to continue where they clearly serve our interests, as well as those of the Soviet Union.

However, the present crisis is not in the first instance an East-West confrontation between super Powers. Although the significance of the Soviet action is world wide, its immediate impact has been on the region of South-West Asia and on the neighbouring Muslim countries.

Afghanistan is a strategic salient into the region. One is bound to ask oneself where the Russian drive is to stop. If the Russians are to be deterred, a sustained and significant response will be needed, not only from the West but from the countries which themselves feel threatened.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed these issues with the Governments of the region during his tour between 9 and 18 January. That took him to Turkey, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India, with a brief call at Bahrain.

Despite the obvious differences of perspective, certain important points of agreement emerged. One was that the West and the countries of the area have a common interest in the stability and integrity of the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz.

Secondly, in the light of the Soviet threat, Pakistan must be able to count on the material and political support of its friends.

Thirdly, the real threat to Iran's recent revolution and to her future security came from the Russians.

Finally, there was of course a general repugnance in the Islamic countries that my right hon. and noble Friend visited at the Soviet onslaught on another Islamic nation.

An effective response to the Soviet threat in South-West Asia and its neighbourhood is, above all, a matter for the peoples of the region. All the statesmen with whom my right hon. and noble Friend spoke recognised the Soviet threat of intervention, by force or subversion, which now extends across the region as far as the Yemen, and they accepted the responsibilities that flowed from this assessment.

In particular, the need for solidarity among like-minded people and for a fresh effort to overcome the divisions of the past was widely recognised. That will not be easy. Conflicts of local interest have to be overcome, and in some cases the present crisis has sharpened them.

In India, where my right hon. and noble Friend was able to meet Mrs. Gandhi and some of her Ministers very soon after they took office, he found a deep concern that Western military aid to Pakistan could disturb the delicate political balance in the sub-continent. The Indians have no desire to see their part of the world become the arena for a clash between the super Powers.

My right hon. and noble Friend pointed out to Mrs. Gandhi that Western help for Pakistan was a direct consequence of the incursion of the Soviet super Power, and that Russia is, after all, the only super Power with a powerful military presence on the sub-continent.

Mrs. Gandhi made it clear that she wished to continue the process of better understanding with Pakistan that she had begun with the Simla agreement of 1972. President Zia had a ready assured my right hon. and noble Friend in Pakistan that he, too, looked forward to a development of the Simla process. My right hon. and noble Friend found this encouraging. It will be a major contribution to peace of mind in the subcontinent if each country's worries about the other can be dissolved.

The response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is not, of course, the exclusive responsibility of the people of the region, even though theirs is the most immediate interest. They need—and they look for—material Western assistance, and a firm Western commitment to their security and independence.

The West itself needs to find ways to make the Russians understand that they cannot break the rules of international behaviour with impunity, either now or in the future. That entails responses by individual countries and by the West's collective organisations, above all by NATO and the European Community.

In the region itself, the first need is to help Pakistan. There are already 500,000 Afghan refugees there, and that number could soon double. Many of them bitterly oppose the Soviet invasion of their country and are determined to return. Their condition is wretched. We have already sent blankets, tents and medicines. The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees is active. Other countries, and especially the United States, are helping, too. Pakistan needs further help to tackle her political, economic and military problems. We are discussing with our allies how best to do that.

We are also considering other measures to help the countries of the region as a whole, both in the short term and in their struggle against the long-term threat of Soviet disruption and subversion. We need to develop our co-operation with Turkey both bilaterally and multilaterally. We need to strengthen our links with the countries of the Arab peninsula. We look forward to rebuilding a mutually satisfactory relationship with the people and Government of Iran once the American hostages in Tehran have been released.

Above all, we believe that one of the most important of all possible contributions to the political stability of the area would be a settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict, which recognised the rights of the Palestine people as well as Israel. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] Immediately after the Russian invasion, the British Government proposed that the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Community should discuss the measures that we might take, bilaterally and collectively, to impress on the Russians how seriously we view their actions. Some of our allies, notably the United States, have already acted. I expect others to follow suit.

I shall now announce the measures that the British Government have so far decided to take. These are in addition to the measures related to Afghanistan that my hon. Friend the Minister of State announced in this House on 14 January.

The British-Soviet credit agreement, concluded by the Labour Government in 1975, expires on 16 February. Its terms were too favourable to the Soviet Union, since the export credit was subsidised more than that which we extend to other countries. The Government's view is that all trade should be pursued on a basis of mutual advantage. We shall apply that principle to British-Soviet trade. We do not propose to renew the credit agreement when it expires. Credit in future will have to be considered on a case by-case basis. Assuming that other Western countries do likewise—which would be very much to our collective advantage—we shall not provide export credit to the Soviet Union at rates more favourable than those set by the international consensus on credit terms.

On technology, we are studying with other countries the tighter application of the COCOM rules for controlling the transfer of sensitive technology to the Soviet Union.

The European Community has decided not to export any food to the Soviet Union that would directly or indirectly replace supplies denied by the United States. The Community has therefore decided to curb exports of grain in the future. Britain is also pressing for an end to subsidised sales of butter, meat and sugar to the Soviet Union.

The Government have also decided to avoid high level and ministerial contacts with the Soviet Union for the time being. They will cancel military exchanges that were under consideration. They will avoid the kind of cultural and other events that would give an impression that nothing has changed and thus appear to condone Soviet aggression.

In accordance with the agreement between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC, my right hon. and noble Friend has approved an increase in broadcasts by the external services of the BBC to listeners in the Soviet Union and Afghanistan.

I now turn to the question of the Olympic Games. Her Majesty's Government sympathise deeply with the Olympic ideal that young people from all over the world should be able to compete freely together with no overtones of politics. However, that view has never been shared by authoritarian Governments, who exploit such events for their political advantage. As in 1936 for Nazi Germany, so now for the Soviet Union, the Olympic Games are a major political undertaking designed to impress the whole world with the prestige of the system. If the games were now to be held in Moscow, it would appear to condone Soviet aggression abroad and repression at home.

However, if the games were to be cancelled entirely, it would be a bitter blow to the dedicated athletes in Britain and elsewhere who have trained so hard for so many years. That is why the British Government believe—that the summer games should be moved. That will not be easy, but it should not he beyond the capacity of the 104 countries which condemned the Soviet Union in the United Nations.

If necessary, the games could be held in more than one country. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has accordingly urged the British Olympic Association to approach the International Olympic Committee to propose that the summer games be moved from Moscow. The Government are fully prepared to help with arrangements for those parts of the games that might be held in this country.

Recent Soviet actions in Afghanistan and at home are not a happy augury for the future. They undermine much of what has been achieved over the past decade and more to provide the basis for a stable and mutually satisfactory relationship between East and West. They underline the need, above all, to develop political solidarity among the members of the European Community and among the members of the North Atlantic Alliance. It is from that political solidarity, and from the defensive arrange- ments that accompany it, that our dealings with the Russians have to start. However, both East and West live on one planet. The consequences of serious miscalculation could be disastrous for very many of its inhabitants.

It is right that the Russians should feel the strength of our disapproval. That should help them to avoid miscalculation in future. It is also right that we should, where possible, continue the search for arms control agreements, commercially justified trade, and other arrangements of mutual benefit. In the long run, both we and the Russians need a sound East-West relationship, but the Russians must understand that there can be no such relationship so long as they behave as outrageously as they have in Afghanistan.

Mr. Shore

The Lord Privy Seal has made a long and serious statement that we shall need to debate, but, as I understand that that opportunity will arise on Monday, I shall limit myself to a few questions.

I emphasise that our condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has not abated one jot since the Minister of State's first statement to the House on 14 January. Indeed, the arrest of Dr. Sakharov and other human rights protestors has only sharpened that condemnation.

Turning first to trade credits, I see no reason why the Western countries should continue to make preferential arrangements with the USSR, but can the Minister assure the House that British action will not simply be negated by trade expansion by other Western countries? Will he also make it plain that we distinguish in this matter between the Soviet Union and other countries in Eastern Europe, many of which seriously oppose current Soviet policies?

I doubt whether there is anyone who does not wish that a site for the Olympic Games other than Moscow had been chosen in the first place, but is the Minister satisfied from his approaches to the International Olympic Committee and British sporting authorities, and, indeed, from his contact with other countries, that there is a sufficient body of support to make a change of venue effective?

Dealing with the Foreign Secretary's recent tour and the Third world aspect generally, is it not clear that there is no enthusiasm for an old-fashioned policy of bases and pacts? What is needed is economic and, in certain cases, military aid, but, above all, an assurance and guarantee against attack of the kind that President Carter has enunciated in his State of the Union message today?

Will the Lord Privy Seal reaffirm that in any assistance to Pakistan—and we of course agree that refugees must be helped—we remain wholly opposed to the efforts of that Government to acquire nuclear weapons, and that we shall have special regard to the interests and advice of India, which is the one great democracy in the whole of Southern Asia?

In treading the narrow path between under-reacting and over-reacting, will the Lord Privy Seal reaffirm as one of the areas of detente, where mutual interests continue to be involved, our continued commitment to arms limitation, to SALT II and SALT III, and to the need to maintain serious political discourse between East and West?

Finally, will the Government bear in mind that destabilisation and danger in so much of the world today are due not merely to Soviet activity but to recession, mounting debt and increasing poverty? Does he not think that a major initiative to lift the economies of the industrialised West and the developing countries is now crucial to the greater political stability we all seek? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this lack of initiative by the British Government and the Governments of the whole Western world is the most serious omission yet?

Sir I. Gilmour

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said at the end of his intervention to the extent that it may be true in general, but I do not believe that it has great application to what has been happening in Afghanistan and to dealing with that matter now. I very much welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about maintaining the Opposition's condemnation of what happened and the fact that it had sharpened since the exile of Dr. Sakharov.

On trade credits, I said that I trusted that our partners would take the same line. The right hon. Gentleman will, however, be aware that our trade credit was taken up only to the extent of about 50 per cent. according to the last figures I saw. I confirm that we make a dis- tinction between Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

It remains to be seen how much support we shall gain for the stand that the United States, ourselves and other countries have taken on the Olympics. But, as I said in my statement, the fact that 104 countries condemned the Soviet Union is at least a promising start.

We are not going back to the age of bases and pacts, and I entirely agree that the danger of subversion is every bit as great as the danger of invasion. I welcome the renewed interest that the United States is taking in the area, and we shall see what comes out of its consultations with the countries concerned. We are facing a threat that we have not faced for 35 years. There must be a significant response from the West and, at the same time, we must ensure that the countries in the area are enabled by our help to react sensibly to this threat.

Mr. Amery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the invasion of Afghanistan following the military occupation of Ethiopia and Aden implies that the threat to Southern Asia has escalated from the political and subversive to the directly military? Has my right hon. Friend noted President Carter's statement that if the need arose the United States would be prepared to defend the Gulf by force? Will he assure the House that the Government are giving consideration to the various ways in which we might help our American allies if the need should arise?

Sir I. Gilmour

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Soviet behaviour in Afghanistan shows a readiness to use the military weapon as opposed to the more traditional weapon of subversion. Therefore, there are the two dangers, although, as I said, in spite of what has happened in Afghanistan, the danger of subversion is still as great as that of invasion. Of course, we shall maintain the closest contact with our American allies and our friends in the area about all possible measures to contain this threat.

Mr. Mellish

Whilst I join in the general condemnation of Russia and its arrogant military action in Afghanistan, I have written to the Prime Minister about credit facilities. I understand the reasons for the curtailment of credit facilities, but will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that in London there are several great engineering firms which are committed to supplying equipment—not military equipment—and that an immediate cancellation of credit facilities will cause harm to this country, not to Russia? May I have an assurance that in the sanctions that are being taken the right hon. Gentleman will have the sense to see that what he does will hurt Russia and not us?

Sir I Gilmour

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reminder, which was not altogether necessary. We have no intention of hurting ourselves and we are mindful of the considerations he has in mind. Of course, what we are doing will not hurt our engineering companies.

Mr. Whitney

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement is warmly welcomed and the actions he has promised will be understood as a guarantee of international security throughout the world? Does he agree that the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), in what he said about SALT II, fails to understand the change of attitude in Moscow and among the leadership of the Soviet Union, which must throw into serious question the attempt to negotiate the SALT II agreement?

Sir I. Gilmour

In these matters, it is important to have the maximum amount of bipartisanship. I thought I detected a fair amount of bipartisan support for the position taken by the Government. Therefore, I would be very reluctant to criticise the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore). I have not done so and I do not do so. My hon. Friend will be aware that President Carter said that the ratification of SALT II had been postponed for the immediate future, so we do not need to come to an immediate decision on that matter.

Mr. Russell Johnston

The length of the Lord Privy Seal's statement justifiably reflects its gravity. As the Government initiated a common approach in NATO a month ago and have not yet achieved it, will the right hon. Gentleman say what hope he has of a common approach? Will he comment on the rumour that Mrs. Gandhi is prepared to make up the shortfall of United States grain?

Is the right hon. Gentleman able to say anything about the Iranian hostages? He seemed to suggest that there was hope of an early solution to the matter, and it would be useful to know what is the situation about the Shah. The right hon. Gentleman knows that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, like the other two party leaders, is a patron of the British Olympic Association appeal. Does she intend to seek a common approach to achieving a united view in consideration of the attitude that the Government and others have taken on the Olympic Games?

Sir I. Gilmour

The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that my right hon. Friend has written to the chairman of the British Olympic Association, Sir Denis Follows. He has replied, drawing attention to the practical difficulties of moving the Olympic Games from Moscow. He has agreed to ask the members of the International Olympic Committee for their observations.

I regret to say that I have nothing to add to what has been said about the hostages.

It is a little unfair to suggest that we have been trying for a month to get a common approach in NATO. As I suggested to the House last week, it is natural that an alliance should take longer to come to an agreed view than would individual countries. We are working to bring our views into alignment.

I also saw a report in a newspaper about Mrs. Gandhi agreeing to make up the grain shortfall. I have seen nothing to confirm that report, and so far as I know it is not true.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Will my right hon. Friend consider the necessary adequacy of the response to military aggression? The many actions being taken, admirable though they are, are not, in my view, adequate. Will my right hon. Friend consider, not today but after he has consulted his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, what response he can make to President Carter's statement that he is giving a guarantee to the Gulf States and that he is reactivating the register of those liable to be drafted?

Sir I. Gilmour

My hon. Friend's final comment is a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I do not think my right hon. Friend is altogether fair in talking about the inadequacy of our response. There is a limit to what any one country can do. We have reacted well. My right hon. Friend's journey was extremely valuable to this country and to the Alliance. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we are in the closest consultation with the United States about the defence of the Gulf.

Mr. Cryer

The right hon. Gentleman's statement is important and serious, but we would have preferred the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to be a Member of the House of Commons so that he could make his statement here and be more directly accountable.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the attitude of many Conservatives in condemning Russia rests uneasily on their shoulders because they supported to the hilt the American invasion of Vietnam which was far more bloody, serious and damaging? Will he emphasise the Government's making direct representations to the Russian Government rather than arming the nation to the teeth and thereby bringing into greater prominence the question of a world war?

Will the Minister accept that some of us do not regard the Olympic Games as the private property of any Government, that they can only make representations and that it is a decision not for them but for the International Olympic Committee?

Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman feel that denying food to the people of Russia, who may or may not approve of the actions of their Government, will make the people of Russia have greater or lesser regard for the West?

Sir. I. Gilmour

Of course the Olympic Games are not the property of any one Government, and that is really the basis of the action we have been taking. I fail to see any serious parallel between what happened in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We have already made direct representations to the Russians, but that of course is in no way a substitute for helping our friends in the area to defend themselves against possible danger from the Russians.

Mr. Higgins

If action must be taken which the Government can be sure will be implemented, why does my right hon. Friend's statement contain no mention at all of the ban on imports to this country of subsidised Russian goods, which compete unfairly with our own products and provide valuable foreign exchange to the foreign aggressor?

Sir I. Gilmour

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. I will get in touch with him, and I hope my right hon. Friend will, too.

Mr. Urwin

In the course of his statement the right hon. Gentleman made a brief but none the less important reference to the problems of the Middle East. Is the House to understand that it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to seek to institute discussions with the leaders of Israel and the neighbouring Arab States, and, if so, is it also the intention of the Government to invite representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation?

Sir I. Gilmour

That is going rather further than I went when I pointed out the definite fact of the importance that the countries of the area attach to the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The follow-up to the Camp David negotiations is still going on and we still hope that it will succeed. Until it can be seen that it will not succeed, we shall not take further action.

Mr. Emery

Will my righthon. Friend consider with the Americans either renewing or making territorial guarantees both to India and to Pakistan as a direct sign that no further steps by the Russians will be tolerated? In considering the aspect of sanctions, does he not accept that normally Russian embassies have been the centre of disaffection and subversion? With the very large number of Russians at their embassy in London, might it not be a positive step to ask for a major reduction of the number of diplomats here?

Sir I. Gilmour

My hon. Friend will be well aware that we enforced a major reduction in 1970 or 1971. We have no immediate plans to do so again, but obviously we shall keep the situation under review.

On the question of guarantees, it is no good guaranteeing people's territorial integrity unless they wish a guarantee. I have no reason to believe that India does, but this is one of the many matters that we shall be keeping under review.

Mr. Well beloved

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the hopes and aspirations of mankind that peace and security might be realised on the basis of detente and disarmament have suffered a grave setback as a result of the naked and brutal invasion and occupation of Afghanistan?

With regard to the Olympic Games, would the Minister draw to the attention of the British Olympic Association that there are reasons to believe that the arrest and banishment of Dr. Sakharov and other dissidents are related to the holding of the Olympic Games in Moscow and the fear that they might communicate to the world the truth about life in the Soviet Union?

Sir I. Gilmour

I shall certainly do what the hon. Gentleman asks. I entirely agree with what he said in both parts of his question.

Viscount Cranborne

I agree wholly with my right hon. Friend's call for solidarity among the Western nations in their response to the Soviet aggression, but I wonder whether he could enlarge on what Her Majesty's Government intend to do to encourage more solidarity among some of our European friends and allies.

Sir I. Gilmour

No. I am afraid that must be a process of discussion, which may take some time. After all, after a great cataclysmic, or almost cataclysmic, event like the invasion of Afghanistan by the Russians it is not surprising that the reactions and perceptions of different Western countries should vary. It will obviously take some time before they are brought fully into line, but it is certainly our objective, through co-operation, to bring them into line.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the gravest danger at the moment is that of miscalculation by the Soviet Union? Does he also agree that the one sure way of making certain that the Soviet Union does not miscalculate would be to establish a Western military force in the Arabian Sea and to reintroduce, or at least prepare to reintroduce, in this country as well as in the United States, selective national service?

Sir I. Gilmour

As I have already said, the last question is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, although certainly when I was concerned with these matters the forces themselves did not welcome such an idea.

I agree with my hon. Friend that miscalculation is the greatest danger, and it is, I think, partly the result of Soviet strength over the last few years that it has been prepared to take these risks, which in previous years it would not have been able to do. I am not convinced that the presence of a Western military force is the right answer, but it may well be. As I say, we are consulting with our allies on this and all other matters.

Mr. Deakins

Is the Lord Privy Seal correct in describing Afghanistan before the recent Russian invasion as a nonaligned State? Surely it was a client State of the Soviet Union, and that is a factor that has to be taken into account in considering the wider international implications of this Russian aggression.

Sir I. Gilmour

I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right about that. Certainly Russia had tried to subvert Afghanistan, but if the hon. Gentleman is saying, as I think he is, that a country, having tried to subvert another country, is therefore in some way excused by that fact for invading it, I can only say that I do not agree.

Mr. Tapsell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be widespread support for the view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) that, while the statement which he has made today, like all the actions of this Government since the aggression against Afghanistan, is admirable, it does not yet go nearly far enough? In particular, to cite just one example, may I ask whether it is the Government's intention to seek to ensure with our friends in Central Asia that the over flying rights which the Russians need to maintain and strengthen their forces in South Yemen are denied to them?

Sir I. Gilmour

As I said in my statement, we need a sustained and significant reaction. Therefore, I think my hon. Friend is asking a bit too much in suggesting that we should get everything fixed up and be able to agree on all that should be done in a matter of weeks. This is something that will go on very much longer.

The question of over flights is a matter for the countries concerned, and no doubt they will be considering it.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Will the Lord Privy Seal accept that many of us who are against what has happened in Afghanistan are nevertheless against the counter measures that he has spoken about this afternoon, for one reason—that they will widen the breach between East and West? I think that the Lord Privy Seal will admit that sooner or later that breach has to be healed, otherwise we are all finished.

Sir I. Gilmour

Of course there has been a breach, but the breach has been caused by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; it has not been caused by our reaction, which some of my hon. Friends have said is inadequate. We totally repudiate the idea that the breach would heal itself if we did nothing and the Russians were allowed to get away with the invasion of Afghanistan.

Mr. Shore

In advance of today's and Monday's debates, I press the Minister on one point. It flows from his reply to the question about the Government's attitude to the SALT II agreement. Has the right hon. Gentleman had a chance to see President Carter's State of the Union message? The President says in terms that this treaty is the single most important bilateral accord of the decade, and that he has every intention of proceeding with it. Is it not extremely important that the Government should continue their support for SALT II and that it should be expressed as soon as the time is judged right?

Sir I. Gilmour

I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that that was implicit in the last two or three paragraphs of my statement.