HC Deb 19 February 1982 vol 18 cc565-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Berry.]

2.32 pm
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Following the dramatic success of the Lancaster House talks and the independence ceremonies in Zimbabwe, many right hon. and hon. Members who, like myself, have closely followed events in Namibia over the years hoped that a new impetus would be given to the interminable talks on the future of Namibia. It was not to be.

I hope that this short debate will give the Government a better chance than they have at Question Time or in a general and rambling foreign affairs debate to tell the House what has really caused the endless delays in recent months, and what more my country can and will do to help to achieve a just, honourable and, above all, lasting settlement in this part of Southern Africa.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for being on the Front Bench today. I am only sorry that this has led to a number of cancelled engagements in his constituency. However, his constituency will understand that, having elected an outstanding and able Member of Parliament, it is inevitable that the Prime Minister wishes fully to deploy his talents, as does the House. No right hon. or hon. Member has a better grasp of recent events concerning Namibia.

I shall not spend too much time discussing the background to recent events. Suffice it to say that Namibia, formerly South-West Africa, has fewer than 1 million inhabitants, is a coastal State the size of France and Germany put together, and has been the subject of international dispute since 1946. In the words of a Foreign Affairs Research Institute paper: Its mineral wealth and strategic global placing make its ultimate disposition important to East and West. Internationally it is proving a test of United Nations credibility, of Western diplomacy and the effectiveness of the OAU, and a factor in the shaping of the new American policy towards Southern Africa. Internally it is a test-case of the survival of democracy in a multi-ethnic African country. I agree with those comments.

South Africa's involvement stems from 1919 when the League of Nations entrusted South Africa with the task of administering this former German colony. In 1966 the United Nations declared in full assembly that the mandate was at an end and it assumed direct responsibility.

To break the dangerous deadlock between South Africa and the United Nations, five Western members of the Security Council—Britain, the United States, France, West Germany and Canada—offered themselves as honest brokers. This contact group, set to work on the basis of UN resolution 385 of 1976, was accepted by Pretoria, SWAPO, the UN and the internal parties. That resolution and resolution 435 of 1978 called for free elections under the control of the United Nations and the withdrawal of South Africa.

I pay tribute to the work of the contact group and in particular to the part played by this Government. It is a part of which we can all be proud. My main message to the Government is that they have a clear duty to strain every sinew to get the talks to succeed. The weight of world opinion must be brought to bear to achieve a magnanimous settlement. Failure will lead straight to hatred, despair and degradation.

The contact group has been at pains to allay the fears of the internal parties and the minority groups concerning the possible creation of a one-party State after the first election—this week's news out of Salibury will have heightened those fears—and the subsequent suppression of minority interests and rights.

Black African objections to the proposed one-man, two-vote formula at the very least suggest to me that the timetable may be slipping. I have no doubt that the Minister will seek to assure the House that this rather complicated formula is essential. I certainly always start by seeking a very simple form of electoral system.

The contact group's so-called phase two involves highly contentious issues, including the size, composition and deployment of the UN transition assistance group which is to police a ceasefire and supervise the elections. I ask my hon. Friend to inform us of the latest developments over UNTAG this afternoon.

According to newspaper reports, no doubt inspired by the Foreign Office, the United Kingdom is to form the vanguard of the force. How many troops are still earmarked? Has a British battalion been allocated as well as signals and communications units? What about hardware, radios, trucks and helicopters?

United Nations peacekeeping was the subject of a debate which I initiated in March 1979. Peacekeeping by UN forces has become an essential part of the work done by the UN for international harmony and security. So far, 100, 000 soldiers from 50 armies have taken part. That is a remarkable and encouraging fact.

The UN is under an obligation to demonstrate its independence from SWAPO. I believe that some recent comments by the new UN secretary-general were, to put it mildly, a little unfortunate.

I turn to the vexed issue of Walvis Bay. This 434 square mile enclave is Namibia's only port of any consequence, handling 90 per cent. of all its exports. It was annexed by the British in 1878. It was incorporated in the Cape Colony in 1884, and thus became part of South Africa's Cape Province in 1910.

The Secretary of State for External Affairs of Canada made a statement on behalf of the contact group in the General Assembly on Walvis Bay which was read out again by Mr. Cyrus Vance in July 1978. He said: The General Assembly will have noted that we have omitted from our proposal the difficult question of Walvis Bay for the reason that we see no way of settling the question in the context of the present negotiations. We feel strongly, however, that the issue should not delay the long sought after independence of Namibia. We consider that all aspects of the question of Walvis Bay must be subject to discussion between the South African Government and the elected Government of Namibia. We have, furthermore, obtained assurances that the strength of the South African forces in Walvis Bay will not be increased during the: transitional period and that Namibians in Walvis Bay will be able to participate in the political life of the Territory during, the transitional period, including by voting in the elections. I admit to some concern over the contact group's position on Walvis Bay, and I await my hon. Friend's eloquence to persuade me that it is the best possible one. The Walvis Bay issue is thought to be insoluble and it is to be kept on ice until after a settlement.

As far as I have been able to discover, both South Africa and SWAPO appear to accept this, as the issue has not been raised in recent negotiations. Nor, for that matter., has the House ever discussed the subject as far as I know. I cannot think of any historical precedents for granting independence to a country while denying it sovereignty over its only major port. Is that really a satisfactory basis for independence, or will it lead directly to armed conflict? In 10 years, will my hon. Friend be praised for his statesmanship or blamed for his short-sightedness? My concern is that we should not shovel our problems on to others. My concern is that we should get it right.

There have been attempts from the Conservative Back Benches and elsewhere to link a settlement in Namibia with the withdrawal of the Cuban forces at present in Angola. I do not support such attempts, and I trust that the Government do not. Although totally opposed to the unwarranted presence of Cuban soldiers in Angola, I do not believe that their presence justifies South Africa continuing to control Namibia. To suggest that it does may push a settlement in Namibia many years into the future.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Townsend

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand why I do not give way to him. I am very short of time.

I also condemn without reservation the deep penetrations that the South African army has been making into Angola from Namibia. Far from safeguarding the interests of the West, as has been claimed, they make straight the paths of the Soviet strategists. What is the Government's latest estimate of the number of South African soldiers and other personnel still in Angola?

The interests of the West lie in having a Government in Windhoek who have been elected by Namibians for Namibians. As The Times said in an editorial on 31 August last year, In the long run it is African nationalism itself that will defeat Soviet penetration. Following the failure of the Geneva meeting in January 1981, there have been calls from many countries for comprehensive mandatory economic sanctions against South Africa to force a settlement. Such calls have not been supported by all African countries. I was amazed to hear the shadow Foreign Secretary tell the House that the Labour Party was in favour of economic sanctions against South Africa "with regard to the Namibian question". I am convinced that he knows better.

Anthony Eden once said: There are two kinds of sanctions, effective and ineffective. To provide the latter is provocative and useless. If we are to apply the former we run the risk of war. He was right. How does one enforce sanctions? At the end of the day, it is by force of arms, by shot and shell, by maiming and widowing, and by killing South Africans. Logically there is no other way. That is why I for one object to trade sanctions against the South Africans.

There are one or two comparatively minor points that I should like to put to my hon. Friend. Only a few days ago Mr. Kalangula resigned from the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance. Do the Government believe that this will have much impact on the current talks?

Secondly, there was coverage in The Observer last Sunday on the report of the British Council of Churches on Namibia, which suggested that there was a reign of terror gripping Northern Namibia. Has the report been brought to the attention of my hon. Friend, and does he propose to take any action or has he any other comments? Perhaps he will take this chance to condemn SWAPO's terrorist activities in Namibia and their increasing use of arms and ammunition from Eastern Europe? I am told that few guerrillas have been captured by South African forces, but many have been shot, which at least suggests that the South Africans may not always be obeying the Geneva convention.

What is the level of humanitarian aid inside Namibia? What are the Government doing to help? Can they not do more? The Western world cannot and must not shield its eyes from the plight of the people of Namibia, many of whom are living on subsistence level.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take this opportunity to bring the House up to date with the activities of the contact group and will tell us all that he can about the reaction of the various interested parties inside and outside Namibia to the group's latest proposals. He will know better than any other hon. Member that Namibia has moved to the centre of the Southern African stage and is a matter of great concern to the international community. He will recognise, too, that for Britain, with its historic ties with South Africa, Namibia represents unfinished business. The hour is late if a great and historic calamity, no doubt involving powerful forces from outside the region, is to be avoided.

2.48 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

I welcome the opportunity provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) to discuss Namibia. I am particularly glad that my hon. Friend has chosen this subject. He has for many years had a great interest not only in South Africa but in the whole of Africa. As he demonstrated in his clear speech, he has a considerable knowledge of the Namimbian problem. Therefore, I am all the more pleased to be able to listen to his views and I appreciate having this opportunity to make a brief response in the limited time available.

I agree that the debate is timely, but at the same time my hon. Friend will understand that there are limitations on what I can say as we are, as he rightly pointed out, in the middle of a negotiating process. It would clearly be unwise for me to become deeply involved while that process is taking place. However, I shall do my best to answer some of the important questions raised by my hon. Friend.

Our interest in Southern Africa as a whole is to secure peace and stability. It is an African, Western and British interest. Only those interested in exploiting dissension in the area wish there to be a lack of progress to peace and stability. I speak of some members of the Eastern bloc. As my hon. Friend said, we have a long association with many parts of Southern Africa, and therefore a strong interest in there being peace and stability there.

That is why we are now considering Namibia, which has been the subject of international dispute since 1946. Namibia is geographically enormous but has a relatively small and diverse population. It desperately needs peace and stability. The longer the dispute drags on, the more danger there is of instability, not only in Namibia but in Angola. The dispute has international implications. The longer it drags on, the more likely it is that more and more innocent people will lose their lives or have them badly disrupted.

The British commitment is to continue to work vigorously within the contact group of the five Western nations towards a settlement. We strongly believe that we must proceed by negotiation and not, as proposed by other sources, by cutting off all dialogue and contact with South Africa and imposing sanctions, My hon. Friend rightly condemned such action.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Luce

No. I have a limited amount of time in which to answer the important questions posed by my hon. Friend.

We do not believe that it would help the process to impose sanctions. We have a part to play in the five Western nations contact group, which we shall play as fully as we can. We shall work, as our friends in the group will, towards a stable and independent Namibia.

Let me touch briefly on two aspects of the points that my hon Friend raised on the negotiating process. As I told the House on 3 February, the Western five have received replies from all concerned to our revised proposals for the constitutional principles if we believe the constituent assembly might agree to adopt. Agreement has been secured on most points, but certain items raised by the front-line States and SWAPO require further consideration. My hon. Friend was right to relate the matter to the electoral arrangements put forward. They are designed to be as fair as possible to all groups and parties.

We hope that it will not be long before the obstacles are removed and we can move to the second phase which is concerned mainly with questions related to the United Nations' transitional assistance group and the impartiality of the electoral process. All parties to the problem will need to be convinced that the electoral arrangements will be totally fair to all of them and fairly administered.

My hon. Friend referred to the United Nations transitional assistance group. I reiterate that it will feature as a main point in the phase 2 discussions. Its composition, deployment and the nature of the contribution that we may make can be discussed only in the context of phase 2. These are very critical issues in which all the parties are deeply concerned. The sooner we can get on to phase 2, the better it will be for all the parties.

The target of the five remains to begin the implementation of the plan, that is to say, a ceasefire, and the deployment of the United Nations force in Namibia in 1982. Since the United Nations plan allows for at least seven months between the ceasefire and the elections to the constituent assembly, this implies that our objective must be independence some time in 1983.

With regard to Angola and the existence there of Cuban troops, this has been referred to in the House on a number of occasions and I have stated our position. I am glad to have the chance to put this into perspective again.

From the general point of view, we want to see a reduction in tension in the area as a whole. That will help the negotiations on Namibia. Therefore, to this end, Her Majesty's Government hold the view that a positive contribution to reducing tension would be the reduction and withdrawal of Cuban troops in Angola. Having said that, obviously we appreciate that the decision on this is one to be taken between an independent Angolan Government and the people and Government of Cuba. I should also say that the Angolan Government are on record as wishing to see the Cubans depart from their country when a settlement in Namibia is obtained.

Therefore, what my hon. Friend wants to know is the position of the British Government. There is no direct linkage between the existence of Cuban troops in Angola and the Namibian negotiations. But at the same time, as I have already implied, there is, I believe, an indirect relationship in the context of the general need to ease tension in the area. I believe that a process of withdrawal would make a contribution to just that kind of atmosphere.

I take the opportunity once again to condemn South African incursions into Angola as strongly as I can. Equally, I take the opportunity to condemn violence, from whatever source it comes. This points all the more urgently to the need to get a negotiated settlement and thereby to reduce the prospects of violence.

With regard to the important and difficult question of Walvis Bay, I very much appreciate the point that my hon. Friend is making—that it is important to try, during the process of the negotiations, to clear up all the potential bones of contention between all the parties. But, as he said, the five have made it clear since 1978 that Walvis Bay should be discussed by the elected Government of Namibia and by the South African Government. There is a genuine problem here. A very complex series of legal issues is at stake. We take the view that it would not help the prospects of getting a successful conclusion to these negotiations if we were to change the policy and approach that we have adopted since 1978. Obviously, we must express the hope that thereafter there will be a satisfactory compromise between the parties concerned. I believe that the position concerning Walvis Bay that I have just expressed is generally accepted by all the members of the contact group.

With regard to the very important question of the United Nations, its impartiality, and the United Nations force, in phase 2 we shall address ourselves forcefully and strongly to the impartiality of the electoral process, on which certain parties need reassurances. This will be one of the key issues to be dealt with. As I have already told my hon. Friend, the composition of the United Nations force will be fully discussed.

My hon. Friend referred to the record of the United Nations in fulfilling Security Council mandates in the world since the Second World War. We need to remind ourselves that, generally speaking, it has a fine record of impartiality which, as my hon. Friend said, ought to be fully acknowledged and recognised. I hope that our friends who are concerned with getting a Namibian settlement will consider this point and look at their record in this field. We have confidence that the secretary-general and his staff will fulfil their tasks in Namibia with the greatest of ability.

I have seen the report of the Council of Churches. I have been able to receive a delegation led by the Bishop of Manchester and have had a thorough discussion with the delegation about its findings during its recent visit. We share its anxiety about violence and, as I have already said, the British Government strongly condemn violence, from whatever source.

With regard to the position of Mr. Kalangula, that is something that we as the British Government and as a member of the five can only observe, save for my saying that it is the task of the contact group to ensure that it consults all those parties, whether within Namibia or outside, who are interested in a settlement, and keeps in the closest possible contact 'with all legitimate interests in that area.

It is through international bodies that we make our contribution towards easing the humanitarian problems that the Namibian people face.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity to state the British Government's position and say that we desire a negotiated and peaceful settlement in Namibia as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o'clock