HL Deb 12 July 1934 vol 93 cc565-75

VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can state what is the exact position with regard to the embargo on arms for the Chaco war and whether it is the fact that it is the attitude of the Italian Government which is hindering the completeness of the embargo; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I would not have troubled your Lordships at this hour with this new Question if I could have seen any prospect of being able to raise it on another and more suitable occasion, but it is very near the end of the Session, and I think it is important that something should be said here on this subject before we separate for the holidays. The question arises in reference to the unhappy war in South America over the Chaco. It came first before the League in 1928, when, by the action of the League, I think under the leadership of M. Briand, peace was restored for a short time, but the war broke out again in 1932. Some day perhaps we shall know what was the secret history of that renewal of the fighting, but at present we can only have our suspicions. At any rate, it did break out again in the spring of 1932, and became very acute.

The League decided to intervene in 1933, and appointed a Commission to investigate the subject which, after some delays—caused again by influences which I am not in a position to describe because we really do not know all of what they were—at last in November of last year did proceed to South America, did draw up terms of peace, or at any rate terms for the cessation of hostilities, after hearing all that the parties had to say, and urged them upon the parties. The matter came before the Council immediately afterwards and was debated there. I need not describe the nature of the terms proposed by the Commission, but I propose to read a few lines of their Report, though they are fairly well known, describing the nature of this unhappy struggle. They say: The conflict may find no definite military issue, but it has already produced one result—suffering and impoverishment for both peoples, which cannot but increase as the war goes on. The struggle in the Chaco is a singularly pitiless and horrible one. The soldiers are fighting in the bush, far from centres of population, and in an exceedingly trying climate. The sick and wounded frequently receive inadequate attention, owing to the difficulty of improvising, with limited resources, a medical service proportionate to large effectives. Moreover, behind the lines, while the struggle goes on, both countries are growing poorer, and their future seems darker and darker. I think that that, from a perfectly impartial source, is a terrible condemnation of the kind of thing that is going on, and one does wonder, even allowing for the folly and madness, of people engaged in war, why it should go on.

In connection with that I am anxious to draw your Lordships' attention to one other passage in the Report, because it throws a light on the whole thing: The armies engaged are using up-to-date material—aeroplanes, armoured-cars, flame-projectors, quick-firing guns, machine-guns and automatic rifles; the automatic weapons are available in great quantities, but the other arms are few. The arms and material of every kind are not manufactured locally, but are supplied to the belligerents by American and European countries. That seems to me an exceedingly ominous sentence, and it indicates one of the great evils of the present time, the immense pecuniary benefit that may arise to private individuals from the progress of horrible events such as those which are now going on in the Chaco. I think that is a very serious state of things.

When the matter came before the Council of the League we were represented, most admirably if I may say so without impertinence, by the present Lord Privy Seal, Mr. Eden, who renewed what had been already proposed by the British Government, and urged very strongly the proposal that all the countries should at any rate cut off as far as they could cut off, this element of the warfare, by cutting off the supply of all arms to both belligerents. He urged that a telegram should be sent to all the Governments concerned, urging them to cut off the supply, to impose an arms embargo. He put it very strongly indeed, and he concluded as follows: The senseless loss of life, the utterly unjustifiable imposition of human suffering, and the meaningless destruction of the best resources in men and material of those two countries have endured already far too long. I do most whole-heartedly urge upon the Council to seize this opportunity of bringing them to an end. It is at once our privilege and our responsibility to do so. Let us therefore determine to take this first step, and take it to-day. That, if I may say so, is the kind of language which we like to hear from our representative at Geneva, and I am glad to say that it had a very immediate response from the other members of the Council.

They all approved and, as I understand it, though the proceedings are a little obscure, there was universal agreement, that something of that kind should be done, but I think the actual proposal was not dealt with till the next day. At any rate, in a very short time telegrams were sent to all the Governments concerned. Broadly speaking, the response was favourable. America, though she had to pass legislation, or obtain legislative authority, to do so, agreed, and immediately imposed an embargo. This country, I am glad to say, promised to impose a complete embargo, and in the meantime suspended the licence on the export of any arms to these countries. Other countries agreed also, most of them promising to agree, or undertaking to agree, as soon as other countries had signified their intentions to do the same. This is the point on which I am really anxious to receive information from His Majesty's Government. There was one country which did disturb the harmony of the proceedings—I may be misinformed, and my noble friend will correct me if I am misinformed—by sending a reply stating that they reserved the right, in the first place, to name the States which they would insist upon agreeing when the matter came up for adoption and, in the second place, they put in this very remarkable and terrible condition, that all current contracts should be respected—that is to say, they should be allowed, in spite of the embargo, to fulfil any contracts that had been made and continue to supply those armaments under the conditions I have described.

Ultimately, on June 2, nearly three weeks after the matter had first been raised, this country—it is perfectly well known which country I am referring to, it is the country of Italy—added to the list of States which others had asked should assent, the States of Russia and Japan, knowing quite well, I should have thought, that in the case of these two additional States there was more difficulty in obtaining assent than in the case of the others. That is the position, unless I am misinformed—I hope I am misinformed—but at present it does look, and one is bound to say so plainly, as if this great attempt to discourage the war and prevent its worst features is being held up by the policy of one country and one country only. I hope my noble friend will be able to explain that that is not so, but if he does not I can only hope that there has been some misunderstanding in this country (Italy) for which we all have the highest respect.


Would the noble Viscount explain what he said about Russia? I understood Russia at once agreed.


I quite agree. Russia entirely agreed. I only meant there was supposed to be more difficulty at that time in getting the assent of these two countries. I was not thinking of Russia at the moment, I was thinking of Japan, and I am much obliged to my noble friend for drawing attention to the point.


Can the noble Viscount say whether Russia and Japan have, in fact, suspended any export of arms?


I cannot tell you. No doubt my noble friend can tell you. What Japan has said is that she has never exported arms and so the question does not arise with regard to her. One would hope, if everyone else agreed, some arrangement with regard to Japanese possible export could be arrived at. But the country that is at present raising the difficulty with regard to existing contracts is Italy. That is the fact, unless I am misinformed. It really does amount to this, if this is true, that in respect, to these contracts the Italian Government is not prepared to come into line with all the other countries concerned—that is to say, she is not prepared to recommend or insist on her subjects foregoing the profit which would arise from these contracts in order to achieve this great international purpose. I earnestly hope that that is an entire misunderstanding of the Italian position, and I hope by raising the matter to-night I shall have given my noble friend the opportunity, if he can, of explaining that that is not so and that there is every reason to hope the Italian Government will come into line with the other Governments.

I hope His Majesty's Government will feel able to pursue the policy they have initiated in this matter. I am quite sure, as far as my knowledge of the country goes, they have the warmest support for what they have done and are doing in this matter. They may feel well assured, whatever other countries do, this country is resolved, as I believe it is, not to have any share or part in a trade of this kind, which is really a trade in human suffering and human blood, without which we should be certainly better and I believe more prosperous in the end. I hope in this matter we shall follow the precedent we set up 100 years ago in the matter of the slave trade, and that we shall definitely and altogether separate ourselves from a trade of this kind, which is fraught with human suffering and human blood.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby has asked me to give whole-hearted support to the Motion of the noble Viscount on the Cross Benches and to the point of view put by him. Particularly my noble friends on this side of the House, and our Party, believe that even if this embargo breaks down through the action of Italy—I believe since then the Chileans are beginning to follow the example of the Italian Government—we, Great Britain, should continue to prohibit altogether the export of arms to Bolivia and Paraguay. We are very definite about that point. We believe there is no excuse, simply for the sake of profits out of slaughter, to allow our nationals to engage in this traffic. This is the particular case of Paraguay and Bolivia. People may say: "Why should we lose money and throw workmen out of employment? I emphatically answer "Yes, let other people reap the harvest of death if they wish, but let us keep our hands and consciences clean."

At one moment Sir John Simon, the present Foreign Secretary, appeared to have an inspiration of courage and imposed an embargo on the shipment of armaments to China and Japan. I always regret that he withdrew from that position when other countries said they could not agree. Let us in this matter do what we think is right, irrespective of other countries. That is real patriotism. I want to see my country standing up alone, if necessary, in this matter. Surely in time we will prevail, as we prevailed in the case of the slave trade, as the noble Viscount reminded us. On behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, I wish to say we support the noble Viscount, whole-heartedly.


My Lords, your Lordships will not wish me at this hour of the evening to go into the history of this whole question. I agree generally with what my noble friend on the Cross Benches has said on the matter, but I would emphasise that this country has twice given a lead in regard to this question. It came before the League in 1932, and it was on our initiative that the countries were then invited, and once again when it came up when the Commission of Three who went out to the countries to investigate had returned. The situation, I am afraid, is very largely what has been described by my noble friend. Thirty-two countries were asked to participate in the embargo, and in addition Japan, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Latvia were also asked to come in at a later date. Most of these countries have agreed. We ourselves agreed by telegram on the 26th of May, saying that once again we proposed to uphold the embargo by our own action, but we stipulated that twenty-one countries should also come in whom we considered were essential if the embargo was to be effective.


Twenty-one named countries?


Twenty-one named countries. We have issued no licences ourselves for the export of war materials to Bolivia and Paraguay since the 9th of May last. There have been a good many offers made to armament firms in this country, but the licences have been held up. In principle the whole of the thirty-two countries invited by the League have agreed to impose the embargo, and so also have the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Latvia. Some of them only agreed subject to other countries coming in, which is a natural procedure on their part because, like ourselves, they feel that, the embargo, if it is to be made effective, must be supported by the big producing countries.

Japan was in a different position. Japan refused, saying verbally through her Consul-General at Geneva that she had decided in principle to abstain from any participation in League enterprises of a political nature. Therefore she regretted that she could not depart from this principle. But, as my noble friend stated, she has, in fact, not sent any arms to Bolivia or Paraguay and, therefore, I share with, him the hope that as she has not done so in the past she will not do so in the future. But merely on the question of principle, having left the League of Nations, she does not feel prepared to act with other countries on matters put forward by the League. Germany, on the other hand, agreed to stand by the embargo. Italy agreed provided Russia and Japan did so. As I have already stated, Russia has, but Japan, for the reasons I have given, has not. But Italy went somewhat further. She made a second condition, which my noble friend referred to, which was that current contracts should not be interfered with. In some cases, I think in the case of the United States, current contracts which had been made for a particular article before the actual legislation was introduced were allowed to proceed, but in every case, I think, except that of Italy, no further contracts and no running contracts could be allowed to go on. As we understand it, Italy has said not merely current contracts but re-current contracts should be allowed to proceed, which, of course, is a very different matter. We have made representations through our Ambassadors at Rome and also at Tokyo, but I am afraid at neither place at present with any great success.

There was a difficulty in the United States. The President was particularly anxious to put the embargo into effect, but there were difficulties, I understand, of a constitutional character. These were, however, overcome by the President making a Proclamation that the sale of arms and munitions in the United States to Paraguay and Bolivia should be forbidden. I understand that under their Constitution they had difficulty in preventing the export of arms, but, of course, if they stopped the sale of arms it comes to exactly the same thing, and I understand it has been quite effective. The President made his Proclamation on the 28th of May—in fact as soon as he was appealed to by this country on behalf of the League. There are also two other countries which are to some extent affected. Belgium has made her acceptance conditional on acceptance by all the States who were invited, of which Japan was one. Chile has done the same, and specifically mentioned Japan. Peru has said she will abide by the same conditions as regards re-exportation as Chile. Those are all difficulties of a minor character, and, if only Italy will come into line with the other countries, we have every hope that these difficulties will be overcome.

I may say that the Chairman of the League Committee of Three, M. Najera, has sent a letter round to all the countries who were invited to impose the embargo. So far the replies from a good many countries have not come in. We still have hopes that Italy may agree in the end to come into the embargo with us, and in that case we have real hopes of making it effective. As I say, at the present moment that is not the case, and we can only hope that Italy will shortly agree, as the rest of us have.

In regard to the future, it is not quite true, as the noble Lord opposite said, that this is merely a question of making money out of arms. It is more than that, because in regard to Bolivia at any rate, she makes a claim that this is contrary to the Anglo-Bolivian Agreement of 1911, by which both we and the Bolivians agreed not to impose an embargo on any article which is imported from one country to the other. We, of course, dispute that, and say that the Agreement quite obviously only referred to commercial matters and, therefore, we are fully justified in stopping arms, which are not in our view commercial. But she threatens that if we go on with the movement that we are endeavouring to bring into force she will impose the extra war taxation on British companies in Bolivia which so far they have escaped under the Agreement to which I have referred. It is obvious that to carry on with an embargo which is not effective and which is not bringing the war to an end would be a futile proceeding, and, indeed, harmful to interests that are perfectly innocent in the shape of British companies in Bolivia. Therefore, supposing, as I hope will not be the case, that we fail to get the embargo accepted by other Powers and put into effect, we shall then have to reconsider with other countries whether we are going to continue to impose an embargo ourselves. I may say that, although this large number of countries have approved the embargo, actually only Denmark, Switzerland, Holland, the United States and ourselves have taken steps to put it into effect. It is, therefore, only those five countries who have actually started the embargo.


You mean by legislation?


By legislation or by action such as the refusal of a licence, as has been done in our own case. The others are merely standing by saying that when other countries agree they themselves will at once impose the embargo. As far as action is concerned to stop armaments, five countries only have taken any steps. Therefore your Lordships will see that, failing the acceptance of the embargo by Italy, the matter may have to be reconsidered, although I hope very much that may not prove to be necessary.


Could the noble Earl say whether other Ambassadors have taken action similar to that of the Ambassadors of Great Britain in Rome and Tokyo, and whether all the twenty-one countries involved in the application of the embargo actually accepted?


I am afraid I cannot answer as regards the Ambassadors of other countries.


There was no concerted action?


There was no concerted action. We took action at once on our own initiative in order to save time. The noble Lord will realise that speed was the essence of the matter in order to try and bring about the embargo as soon as possible. Therefore we took action immediately through our Ambassador, and I rather think I am right in saying other Ambassadors did the same, but of that I cannot speak with any real knowledge. As regards the other countries, as I said, everyone which was invited accepted in principle, with the exception of Japan.


I am much obliged to my noble friend, and of course I shall not proceed with the Motion for Papers. I share Lord Marley's suggestion that it would be a very good thing for other countries to make representations at Rome as well as ourselves.


They may have done so.


I know. I entirely agree that the British Government were right in acting for themselves and immediately, and in getting other countries to come in as they could. That was obviously the right course for them to take. I personally share the hope of my noble friend Lord Stanhope that the Italian Government will co-operate with other countries. I feel sure that that is really the better mind of the Italian Government, and I cannot help thinking there must have been some misapprehension in the matter which induced them to fail to take the action which is desired. I can only say this in addition, that I trust my noble friend will be very slow to agree to sending arms whatever other countries do, or to allow arms to be sent from this country, whatever other countries do. I am satisfied that, though it may cause inconvenience or even loss or hardship for a time, in the end we shall much more than recoup ourselves by the position that we shall have acquired in the world by action of that kind just as we did in the case of the slave trade. We did have to suffer very severely in the slave trade, but on the whole, even on the lowest calculation, it paid us over and over again to have done so.

There is only one other suggestion that I would like to make to my noble friend. That is, that when the Assembly meets—and I imagine this is a matter which may easily be discussed in the Assembly—I hope that my noble friend or our representatives will be able to sustain the position they have taken up until now and be able among the 56 nations which form the Assembly to state what the real position is and what difficulties there have been up to that time. I desire to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.