HC Deb 06 July 1988 vol 136 cc1051-3
6. Mr. Tony Lloyd

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has made recently to the South African Government on the case of the Sharpeville Six; and if he will make a statement.

7. Mr. Winnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent representations to the South African authorities Her Majesty's Government have made regarding the Sharpeville Six.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Further appeals on behalf of the Sharpeville Six were made by Foreign Ministers of the Twelve on 14 June, by the Security Council on 17 June, by Heads of Government at the Toronto summit on 20 June, and by the European Council on 28 June. We have also raised the issue again direct with the South African Government.

Mr. Lloyd

I hope the Foreign Secretary will accept the fact that international moves in this direction have already had an impact in delaying execution. If he really wants to be the Prime Minister's successor, and not simply her poodle, will he go along and demand of the Prime Minister that she uses her special relationship with President Botha to make it clear publicly that Britain is insistent on clemency being granted, and that it should be granted now?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The whole House, including Her Majesty's Government and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, share the concern raised by the hon. Gentleman that clemency be exercised in respect of the Sharpeville Six. It is for that reason that we have participated in the various representations that I have already described. We have been in touch today, through our embassy in South Africa, to establish the present position. Legal moves are still taking place there. An application is still outstanding for consideration by the Chief Justice in South Africa, and the executions have been suspended at least until 19 July, and will be extended thereafter. We have already urged that all legal options should he used. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already once urged, in an appeal to President P. W. Botha, that clemency should be exercised, and that plea stands against the possibility of it being necessary at the end of the appeal process. We are all seeking, in any way that we think most effective, to procure the result that the whole House wants. We are convinced that those efforts are not likely to be any more effective if we accompany the plea for clemency by any kind of threat or menace.

Mr. Winnick

As the Six could be executed during July, is it not essential that the Prime Minister makes a personal appeal to the President that they should not be executed? Despite what the Foreign Secretary has just told us, is he not aware that Labour Members—Conservative Members may think differently—are far from satisfied that the British Government are doing all that they can to ensure that the hangman's noose does not take the lives of the Six?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I beg the hon. Gentleman to be humble enough to accept, first, that we want as much as he does to see the exercise of clemency in this case and, secondly, that the pleas that have been made by Her Majesty's Government and the representations that have already been made once by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which were supported by the decisions that she arrived at with the rest of the Heads of Government in Hanover last week—representations that have the authority of Her Majesty's Government and are unaccompanied by threats and menaces—are far more likely to have an effect than the sort of threat that the hon. Gentleman would put beside them.

Mr. Neil Hamilton

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is difficult for President Botha to exercise clemency in this case, for two reasons? First, the Western world has given the South African Government no credit for the relaxations of apartheid that have taken place in recent years. Secondly, while the African National Congress pursues an indisciminate policy of terrorism and murder in South Africa, the white community especially will need the reassurance that a strong policy by the South African Government gives.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We all wish to see apartheid brought to an end as quickly as possible, but that process is more likely to be hastened by acknowledging progress when it has been made than by pretending that it has not happened. It is equally right to say that the process of reform is more likely to be set back by violence than the reverse. For that reason, we continue to drive home the case to the ANC and the South African Government that acts of violence set back the process of reform. That said, and although it is not our normal practice in any automatic way to intervene when sentences of death are imposed—we do so only once the legal process has been concluded, and then only in exceptional circumstances—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because the great majority in the House, the Government and almost every other Government in the world, endorse the view, which I am invited to endorse, that it would advance the prospect of good government in South Africa and the end of apartheid if the South African Government were to see their way to exercise clemency in this case.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Does the Foreign Secretary understand that the joint measures with which the Government have been associated command the approval of at least some of us on the Opposition Benches? Does he recognise that there is considerable concern about the extent to which the Government are prepared to pursue unilateral initiatives? Does he accept that the best possible argument in this case is one that is based, not on the somewhat arcane legal principle of common criminal purpose, but upon the humanitarian considerations that necessarily apply in this unhappy and unfortunate case?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is on the basis of the consideration that I have described that our appeal is based. We do not make pleas of this sort on any automatic basis that is likely to be discounted. Our appeal for clemency has been considered carefully in this case. We try to make that appeal in the fashion best calculated to be effective. There is no doubt whatever—I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will agree with me—that it is not likely to be effective if it is accompanied by threats.

Mr. Wells

Do not the abhorrent happenings in Sharpeville, which led to this terribly difficult position in the courts in South Africa, reinforce the wisdom of the Government's policy of setting their face against further sanctions against South Africa, which would induce further economic difficulties in the townships and lead to an incipient revolutionary situation of a sort that led to the present position? Are we not able strongly to plead for mercy for the Sharpeville six because we have not supported sanctions?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am delighted to be able to agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said. It is right that sanctions would be positively directed in the wrong direction. It is our experience and judgment that punitive sanctions so far imposed by other countries have failed to hasten reform, have reduced external influence and have strengthened the hand of those who are opposed to reform. As we have set our face against sanctions, we are more likely to have more influence, rather than less.

Mr. Kaufman

The Foreign Secretary has properly rejected the racist baying from the Conservative Benches on this issue. He says that the Government wish all legal options to be taken before making further representations, and we naturally hope that those options will result in proper clemency being shown to these six innocent people. If that were not to happen, and it became clear within the next few days that these six innocent people faced hanging by the South African regime, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure us that the Prime Minister will demonstrate the concern which he says she feels by personally picking up a telephone and speaking to the President of South Africa to ask for the clemency for the six innocent people?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Again the right hon. Gentleman has a gift for reaching out for the wrong end of the stick. Far from racist baying from the Government Benches, there is powerful support from both sides of the House for measured and effective action to secure clemency in this matter. We have already done all that we can for the present. In March this year, when the matter was first being considered, the Prime Minister asked President Botha to exercise the prerogative of mercy. A stay of execution is in force until 19 July and it may be extended beyond that. If the appeal fails then, as the Prime Minister told the House on 30 June, her appeal would once again go before President P. W. Botha. I do not think that his consideration of that is likely to be enhanced by the drama of a telephone call, and still less if it were accompanied by threats and menaces. The appeal will be sustained in the manner we judge most effective to secure the objective that the right hon. Gentleman wants.