HC Deb 23 October 1984 vol 65 cc559-69 3.52 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about recent developments affecting our relationship with South Africa.

Six members of the United Democratic Front and the Natal Indian Congress entered the consulate in Durban on 13 September and sought an interview with the consul. They subsequently refused to leave and sought temporary refuge in the consulate. Having regard to the humanitarian considerations, the Government decided to refrain from evicting them.

The House will know that on 6 October three of the six voluntarily left the consulate.

On 7 October, one of the three men remaining in the consulate gave an interview to a reporter representing Independent Television News, using a radio transmitter which had been smuggled into the building. That interview followed previous incidents in the consulate involving clandestine photography, at which time we protested to those concerned. Following the ITN interview we sought an assurance from the three that there would be no repetition of that behaviour, which was clearly an abuse of the consular premises. The three declined to give such an assurance and have still not done so. Subsequently, on 18 October, the three issued through their lawyers a statement containing various demands, some directed at the South African and some at the British Governments.

When the six first sought refuge in the consulate there was no suggestion that they would indulge in political activity, which is clearly an abuse of consulate premises. The assurance we have sought that these activities would cease has not been forthcoming; on the contrary, it is clear from the statement issued on 18 October that the three intend to continue their political activities if they can.

It has also become impossible for our consulate in Durban to carry out many of its functions in the circumstances created by the coninued sit-in. The consulate is one of the smallest posts in the diplomatic service. It normally has only one United Kingdom-based officer. The accommodation is correspondingly small and was never designed for residence. These difficulties must also be taken into consideration. They are not a decisive factor but, added to the problems created by the political activities of the three, they presented us with an unacceptable position.

It was for those reasons that we decided that, as was announced on 21 October, we can no longer allow the three to receive visitors, other than doctors when necessary, and that because of the growing difficulties that have arisen as a result of the sit-in, the work of the consulate must now be considerably reduced. There is indeed little option. The situation of the past days has prevented normal work from being carried out.

We have also made clear that any disturbances caused by the activities of, or arising from the presence of, the three in the consulate, or by others outside it, would cause us to review our position immediately.

The South African Government announced in September that, because of what they described as our attitude to their request that we surrender the six or permit the South African authorities to arrest them in the consulate, they regarded themselves as absolved from their undertaking to a United Kingdom court to ensure the return to the United Kingdom of four South African citizens charged with offences under Customs and Excise legislation. As the House now knows, these men did not appear yesterday as required to do so by the court. The court made it clear that in its view solemn promises had been broken by the South African Government and accordingly ordered that all the bail be forfeited, amounting in total to £400,000, and the court issued warrants for the arrest of the four.

I called in the South African ambassador this morning and conveyed to him the Government's strong condemnation of this breach of faith. I also told him that, following the issue of warrants for the arrest of the four defendants, we now expected his Government not to impede their appearance in court.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

We are grateful for that statement and for the one tiny paragraph at the end which gave the Government's response to this outrage to our legal system. Will the Minister confirm that at least three of the Coventry four are, in effect, state employees of the South African Government, that the charges include conspiracy to export parts for guided missiles and that the decision to defy our courts was taken by the South African Cabinet at an early stage? Foreign Minister Mr. Piet Botha has nevertheless suggested that South Africa emerges with dignity from the Coventry proceedings. Do the Minister and the Government share that view?

Does the Minister agree that the Government's response to this outrage has been cool, lame and laid back and that essentially it has been "business as usual" with the apartheid regime? Why have the Government been so supine? Did they ever seriously expect the South African Government to send the four men back, despite pledging their full credit? Is it not clear, as has really been conceded by Mr. Piet Botha, that there was never any such intention, because the committal documents revealed the extent of covert and illegal South African activity in this country and had the matter proceeded to trial, this would have been publicly displayed to the entire world?

What action do the Government now intend to take about the illegal South African Government activity in this country which has been well documented to them? Would not ending the no-visa agreement allow greater control over the movements of South African nationals? Like the Government, we believe that there is no link at all with the consulate affair in Durban. Nevertheless, the Government have now chosen to make life more uncomfortable for the three at the consulate, denying them visits from their wives and lawyers and effectively making conditions for them at the consulate worse than those that they would face in detention under section 28 of the Internal Security Act?

Those men are there because it is their only means of protest. They face detention without trial or charge at the whim of one Cabinet Minister and with no form of judicial review, simply as a means of gagging them because they have expressed anti-apartheid views and have helped peacefully to organise boycotts of the constitution. Whose side are we on? What pressure will we put on the South Africans to lift those detention orders? By our actions, both in Coventry and in Durban, are we not showing ourselves to be the best collaborators in Europe with the apartheid régime?

Finally, what will world opinion make of our dual standards? When a friendly Commonwealth country — Nigeria—acted illegally, we sent the high commissioner home and yet, in the case of an apartheid regime we work on a doctrine of minimal response, verbal condemnation of the breach of faith, and no action at all.

These brave men and the cause which they represent will overcome, and the Labour party will be with them.

Mr. Rifkind

I utterly reject the absurd charge of collaboration which the hon. Gentleman has sought to bring. That is a most extraordinary allegation and one which no objective commentator on the events of the last few weeks would suggest with any seriousness.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that a number of the accused in the Coventry case are state employees in South Africa, and the South African Government themselves have said that it was a decision of the the South African Cabinet not to require them to return to the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman referred to the reported comment of the South African Foreign Minister that his Government had emerged with dignity from the court proceedings yesterday. If the Foreign Minister's comments were reported correctly, I can only say in response that the South African Government, through their counsel, sought to persuade the British court that the South African Government were entitled to require the men to dishonour their pledge to return to the United Kingdom. It was suggested to the British court that no order for the forfeiture of the bail money would therefore be justified. The British court totally rejected that claim, order the total forfeiture of the money concerned and the instant provision of warrants of arrest for the four. That sums up the position of the court.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether her Majesty's Government ever expected the four to be returned to the United Kingdom to stand trial. I remind him that, when the question of bail was considered by the court, the prosecution, representing the Customs and Excise, opposed the granting of bail in this case. The decision to grant bail was a decision of the court, and the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment further on it.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether we would now consider ending the no-visa agreement with South Africa. I do not believe that that would be an appropriate course of action. There are approximately one million South African citizens whose family or other links with the United Kingdom would mean that they were not subject to any visa agreement. Such a response would be a most implausible way of dealing with problems connected with people coming from South Africa, even if the Government were comtemplating action of that kind.

The hon. Gentleman suggested, finally, that conditions in the consulate are now worse than detention in South Africa, in respect of visits permitted to those resident in the consulate at present. I remind the hon. Gentleman that those in the consulate entered it at their own choice and can leave it at their own choice at any time. They are in no way constrained by any action of Her Majesty's Government so far as their presence in the consulate is concerned. We have made it plain to them that we would like them to leave and that they are impeding the normal work of the consulate, but we have not been prepared forcibly to evict them against their will. For the hon. Gentleman to make any comparisons whatsoever with the powers of detention available to the South African Government shows how lacking in objectivity his remarks today have been.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

My hon. Friend has the support of Conservative Members for the way in which he has handled this extremely difficult problem. He has explained to the House that when the six men arrived in the consulate, they did not claim to be seeking political asylum. Will he confirm that, in international law, there is no right to political asylum in consular premises?

My hon. Friend says that we do not propose to evict the men against their will. In that, he will have the support of the House. However, we shall also support him in insisting that they should not indulge in political activities. As I understand it, that would itself be against international law.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and confirm that in international law there is no such right of political asylum. In any case, the three have not sought to exercise such a right. They have made no request for political asylum, so that particular matter does not arise.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

One accepts that consulates cannot become bases for political activity, but, if the Durban three give the assurances that the Government have sought, what did the Minister mean when he said that there would be a review if disturbances happened which were not directly caused by the three? The Minister referred to disturbances arising from the presence of the three or caused by others outside. Could he explain that? He appears to say that a review might take place because of events for which the three were not directly responsible.

On the question of the weapons smugglers, why is it that such a disgraceful action by the South African Government—official and overt action—does not justify the recall of our ambassador?

Mr. Rifkind

We are concerned that it should be possible to use the consulate for normal consular purposes. Anything that impedes that is to be regretted and deplored. Any form of action which, in addition to causing administrative problems, meant that the consulate was being used for purposes related to partisan political activity in South Africa, would be in clear breach of the international obligations under which consulates operate everywhere. We have had to make it plain that any use of the consulate which was incompatible with our normal international obligations would be bound to lead to an immediate review of our position.

The non-compliance by the South African Government with their solemn commitment to the court has led to the forfeiture of approximately £0.5 million. Her Majesty's Government have strongly condemned the South African action. We have told the South Africans that, in view of the warrants for the arrest of the four which the court has ordered, we expect the South African Government to take no further action to impede the return of the four to the United Kingdom to stand trial.

Sir Patrick Wall (Beverley)

One must greatly regret the action of the South African Government in the arms case. However, what positive action does my hon. Friend intend to take to prevent the Durban three from making further propaganda against their own Government, which, as my hon. Friend says, could be against international law? What does a review mean? Will my hon. Friend close the consulate or turf the men out?

Mr. Rifkind

Our concern is not that the three should indulge in political activity, but that they should not indulge in political activity in the British consulate. It is purely for that reason that we have told them that it is not possible for us to permit access for other than medical purposes. We must ensure that there is no repetition of the abuse of such access which we have recently experienced. We took that decision with regret, but we believe that we have no choice if we are to comply fully with our international obligations.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

Are these not shameful weasel words for a British Minister to utter? They place the Minister somewhere to the right of Palmerston. The Minister says that if the men were free they would indulge in political speeches but that that cannot be allowed in the consulate. Does he not know that that is nonsense? If he silences the men, he is condoning the action of the South African Government. The Minister is silencing the men. He is censoring them. He is condemning them with the same political vindictiveness that the South African Government have displayed in the past. Would not the Minister do better to tell the South African Government, among other things, that he will defend the men's right to speak freely and that many of us in Britain were proud of the honouring of Bishop Tutu, who stands up for the civilisation of South Africa rather better than the Minister is doing today?

Mr. Rifkind

The whole House will share the hon. Gentleman's criticism of the South African laws that permit detention without trial. That point is not an issue. The issue is whether it would he appropriate or possible for any Government with a consulate in a foreign territory to permit its use for partisan political activities. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that it would be quite wrong, whether we were dealing with South Africa, the Soviet Union or any other country, to allow political speeches or statements to emanate from a British consulate or other diplomatic premises. The hon. Gentleman can express his views on the laws of detention in South Africa, many of which I might agree with, but that does not alter the fact that we have no choice but to insist that, if we expect others to respect international law in regard to the use of diplomatic premises in the United Kingdom, we must accept our obligations. We are determined to do that.

Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)

Although I recognise the humanitarian motives that led my hon. Friend to allow the ANC members to remain in our consulate initially, does he agree that unless the Government take more determined steps in future to secure the eviction of unwanted guests, our consular buildings will become increasingly vulnerable in many other parts of the world?

Mr. Rifkind

I accept the full force of my hon. Friend's point. We are anxious to ensure that there is no abuse of consular or diplomatic premises elsewhere in the international community. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, especially sensitive and delicate humanitarian matters were involved in this case. We took them into account when deciding not to evict forcibly the three men from the consulate. They entered the consulate without indicating their intentions. When they were in the consulate and refused to leave, we had to take into account the fact that the only way in which they could be removed forcibly was by inviting the South African police into the consulate to evict them. I believe that the House agrees that that would not have been an appropriate course of action.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Does the Minister comprehend, even if the Foreign Secretary and the Government do not, the damage that has been done to Britain's name in the wider world by the Government's attitude towards and treatment of the three men in Durban? As the South African Government decided to break faith on the Coventry four and in view of the treatment—the quite right treatment — of the Nigerian high commissioner, is it not incumbent on the Government to require the South African ambassador to pack his tatty bags and go?

Mr. Rifkind

There has been wide international understanding of the Government's stance. I am not aware of criticism from other Governments of the type that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

Is my hon. Friend aware that even those of us who think that the United Nations arms embargo is wholly ill-advised, impractical and contrary to western interests regret as much as he does the South African Government's decision not to return the four for trial? I believe that that will prove a great error of judgment. Is it not equally important that we should recognise the clear and unequivocal opinion of international lawyers on asylum? It has been said that: There is, in our opinion, no doubt that this right of asylum, even in the case of ambassadors, can be properly conferred only by the consent of the countries to whom they are accredited. Does not that apply wholly to the Durban case and vindicate utterly what my hon. Friend has said?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, especially those in respect of his disapproval of the South African Government's decision not to return the four for trial. I agree that that will greatly damage South Africa's reputation. For the reasons that I have already mentioned, there has not been a specific request for political asylum but I have no reason to differ from my hon. Friend's observations on international law.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

When the Minister met the South African ambassador this morning, did he express his anxiety that Mr. Botha's recent visit appears to have been a meaningless exercise? Did he complain that, in spite of the Prime Minister informing the House of the many lectures that she said that she had delivered to Mr. Botha about his Government's policies —if those lectures were delivered as the Prime Minister said they were—they were obviously treated with the utmost contempt?

Mr. Rifkind

My discussions with the South African ambassador this morning were limited to recent developments of the type mentioned in my statement.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the humanitarian grounds, the Government committed a serious error of judgment in allowing the Durban three to remain in our consulate once their political purpose had become clear? Does he agree that the only way out of this dispute is forcibly to remove them? Does he agree that, although the South African Government's decision that the four should not return for trial is regrettable and utterly deplored on both sides of the House, the stupid and ignorant intervention of the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and his visit to South Africa have made matters worse as he might now have given some credibility to the South African Government's decision not to return those four men?

Mr. Rifkind

I shall not comment on what my hon. Friend said about the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) The Government's main concern has been to consider humanitarian aspects of the case and our international obligations in regard to the use of the consulate. We believe that the only way in which this matter could have been concluded without the cooperation of the three men in the consulate would have been to invite the South African police to enter the consulate. We have no international obligation of that type and no one has suggested that we do. On that basis we can say frankly and without qualification that the Government have complied with international obligations. We noted that, when the South African Government tried to persuade the British court that bail should not be forfeited for the various reasons that counsel on behalf of the South African Government advanced yesterday, the court did not accept the grounds. We believe that we are therefore able to say that the Government have complied with the humanitarian and legal criteria that we have applied throughout the incident.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) obviously speaks for the South African authorities and not for the British people. Is the Minister aware that a comparison is bound to be made between the petty attitude that has been adopted towards the people in the British consulate and the Prime Minister's wining and dining of the South African president earlier this year? When will the Government recognise that, in South Africa, there is a gangster Government who establish themselves on the basis of racial tyranny? Why do the Government not recognise that our job is to aid and comfort the oppressed, not the oppressors?

Mr. Rifkind

I note the hon. Gentleman's comments. I also note that he believes that, in respect of other countries with tyrannous regimes, dialogue is the appropriate means by which to influence their activities. We do not believe in double standards, even if the hon. Gentleman does.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Although I regret the South African Government's decision to prevent their nationals from returning to Britain to face trial in Coventry, and I want there to be social and political change in South Africa, may I ask what would the Government expect if consulates and embassies in Britain were invaded by people who had broken British law and the countries concerned did not force them to leave? What is my hon. Friend's view of the visit made by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) to South Africa when he failed to go to Zimbabwe to secure the release of Bishop Muzorewa who was detained illegally and without trial for many months?

Mr. Rifkind

Throughout the incident we have complied with our international obligations and there is therefore no basis for a comparison such as my hon. Friend suggests. Anyone who is charged with an offence in the United Kingdom appears in court, is able to defend himself and can be tried in public by a court which decides on his innocence or guilt. I hope that my hon. Friend will not draw too close a comparison between what appertains in Britain and circumstances in South Africa in this case, which involve detention without trial, and no opportunity for the matter to be considered in court.

Mr. Winterton

So was Bishop Muzorewa.

Mr. Rifkind

The Government, if not the Labour party, believe that human rights should be treated equally throughout Africa.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Should bail conditions imposed on South African citizens in British courts in future be in any way influenced by the decision of the South African authorities not to uphold the return to the United Kingdom of their citizens on this occasion?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that bail conditions are a matter for courts and are not for the Government to comment on. In this case, as in future cases, it will be for the courts to decide whether they are satisfied and whether what is proposed by those seeking bail should be agreed to.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

Will my hon. Friend please remind the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) that at least he was able to travel to South Africa and to visit the consulate, and that he was able to abuse the hospitality of the host country? In view of the fact that the occupation is embarrassingly illegal in international law, should we not simply close the consulate?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my hon. Friend's earlier comments, but I cannot accept his final contribution. There is no basis on which he is entitled to suggest that the presence of the three men within the consulate is a breach of international law. The Government have been punctilious throughout the episode to ensure that that remains the case.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West)

Does the Minister agree that the decision of Mr. Justice Leonard is without sound legal precedent? Does he recognise that today at the Dispatch Box he has displayed a pathetic, supine attitude towards the South African Government? Will he inform the House of the legal and diplomatic measures and powers at his disposal to ensure that the four arms smugglers return and stand trial in accordance with the judicial procedures of this country? Will he assure the House of his firm determination to use those powers?

Mr. Rifkind

I remind the hon. Gentleman in the most polite and friendly way that that matter was for the court to consider. The court has issued warrants for arrest. When warrants for arrest are issued, a procedure is subsequently followed to ensure that those in respect of whom they were issued appear in court. There is no reason to doubt that the normal procedures will apply in the present case. However, that will be a matter for the courts, not for me.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind and welcome the political and constitutional changes that have taken place in South Africa since the referendum a year ago? Will he balance that against some actions taken in countries that attained independence during the past 20 years that have been to the detriment of their own nationals?

Mr. Rifkind

We have noted that there have been major constitutional changes within South Africa. It is also the case that those constitutional changes are a matter of substantial controversy within the Asian and coloured communities. It is regrettable that as yet there have been no constitutional proposals for the political rights of the black community in South Africa. We shall watch with interest the development of constitutional reform within South Africa, and if there is evidence of real reform we shall welcome it.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central)

When the Minister met the South African ambassador, did he tell him that the problem of the Durban three could be resolved simply by lifting the detention orders? In view of what has happened and what the Minister has said from the Dispatch Box, did the Minister raise that question with the ambassador and, if so, what answer did he receive?

Mr. Rifkind

It has always been the case that the Government are not prepared to act as intermediaries in this matter or to negotiate on behalf of the Durban three or anyone else. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to make such suggestions.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

In view of the deplorable behaviour of the South African Government regarding the Coventry case, how can we continue to have normal diplomatic relations? If the South African Government continue to make no attempt to comply with British justice, should that not require the removal of at least one senior diplomat?

Mr. Rifkind

We have made it clear to the South African authorities that non-compliance with their solemn pledge to the court is bound to have a significant effect on bilateral relations. That remains the case.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Minister confirm that the linkage used by the South African Government in this case, bail and the consulate, is totally against established diplomatic practice? Did the Minister put that to the ambassador; and, if so, what was the ambassador's response?

Mr. Rifkind

That was put by me both this morning and on a previous occasion when I saw the ambassador. The substance of the case that counsel for the South African Government put to the court was based on the supposition that there was such a linkage. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the court refused to consider that matter because it was not a matter for the court to consider. The court insisted that as the pledge given by the South African authorities had not been complied with, there was no alternative but to insist on the forfeiture of the £400,000 bail money.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Is my hon. Friend aware that he enjoys widespread support in this country and elsewhere for his handling of the matter? Will he continue to be careful not to rule out the possibility of stricter measures if that proves necessary? So long as the position continues, the security and functioning of our consular offices abroad and the homes of our overseas representatives will be jeopardised. Does the Minister agree that in that context the futile mission of the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) at the behest of the Leader of the Opposition smacked more of trying to stir up matters than of genuinely trying to resolve a difficult problem?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with the first point raised by my hon. Friend. The announcement at the weekend restricting access shows that we are determined to take the sort of steps that my hon. Friend recommended. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) was in no way going on behalf of or with the approval of the Government. He must take full responsibility for his own decision to go to Durban. There is nothing else that I can usefully add in respect of his visit.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the Minister explain the difference of approach between the extremely lax treatment of the four South African arms smugglers who escaped from Coventry for the price of a couple of diamonds when it was clear that they would not return, with the harsh conditions of bail and detention imposed on 7,400 miners who sought to defend jobs and communities?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to comment on decisions taken by a court in respect of bail.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Does the Minister accept that many people will find it extraordinary that he allowed the South African official who gave an unequivocal assurance to the British court to remain in this country with diplomatic status? Is not the only course open to the Government to ask that official or the ambassador to leave the country? Britain cannot trust that official in view of what he has done.

Mr. Rifkind

Yesterday, the court in its judgment explicitly exculpated the official from any personal responsibility for the decision. The court went out of its way to state that it was satisfied that the official was not responsible for the failure to comply with the undertaking given to the court. It was the responsibility of the South African Government, not of the official.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Is the Minister aware that he made an ambiguous statement in response to his hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) when he stated that any repetition of this practice by the South African authorities would "have a significant effect on bilateral relations"? Will the Minister clarify whether that significant effect would be adverse or favourable, how it would have the effect and to what degree?

Mr. Rifkind

I would have thought that that went without saying, but for the sake of the hon. Gentleman, I confirm that the effect would be adverse.

Mr. Anderson

The key to the issue is that the South African Government have dishonoured an unconditional pledge that promised their full credit to our court. We still await a reply from the Minister about what effect that will have on our bilateral relations. All the Minister said in his statement — he has not elaborated on it — is that he strongly condemned the breach of faith. Is he seriously saying that, following that breach, our bilateral relations will continue as before? If he is not, what aspects of our relations will be affected? If nothing is done—he has not said that anything will be done—is it not clear that any official of the South African embassy can be instructed by his Government to lie to our courts and emerge with impunity?

The Minister told me by letter on 8 October that, if the South African Government failed to return the four men, our Government would view the matter very seriously. Why then, on the precedent of the Dikko affair—that was a friendly Commonwealth country — is he not asking the South African ambassador, as the representative of his Government, to pack his bags and go?

Mr. Rifkind

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my original statement he would be aware that not only did I condemn the breach of faith, as represented by this incident, when I saw the South African ambassador this morning, but I told him that, following the issue of warrants for the arrest of the four defendants, we now expected his Government not to impede their appearance in court. That remains our position and we hope that the South African Government will, on reflection, carry out their obligation as originally transmitted to the court.