HL Deb 15 June 1955 vol 193 cc110-2

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement about the reported bombing by R.A.F. aircraft of five small villages in Southern Arabia on or about Friday, May 20, 1955.]


My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord is referring to the punitive expedition undertaken on May 20 in the Lower Aulaqi Sultanate of the Western Aden Protectorate; if so, the circumstances were as follows. On May 11 the Ahl Mansur section of the Bakazmin tribe destroyed a section of the main road to Said, the principal town of the Aulaqi Sheikhdom, and attacked a Government Guards convoy, killing one civilian and three Government Guards and seriously wounding one other. More than a hundred men were concerned in the attack. The tribe were called upon by the Governor of Aden to pay a fine and deposit fifty rifles, but they did not respond by the expiration of the time limit. Consequently, air action was taken against the habitations of the tribe, consisting of one village, five hamlets and two forts. Adequate warning was given to enable the inhabitants to evacuate, and there were no casualties.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Arising out of it, I should like to ask him a further question. While not wishing in any way to condone these murders, or the non-payment of the fines, may I nevertheless ask the Government whether they consider that collective reprisals of this kind against habitations and property are either just or wise?


My Lords, the destruction from the air of the property of lawless tribes is, in our opinion, the most effective and probably the most humane way of punishing them when they refuse to pay a collective fine. It has been used for many years in the Aden Protectorate. I say it is the most humane way because, when preceded by adequate warning, as in this case, it is less likely to result in loss of life than a ground expedition, which would invite resistance from the tribesmen.

Collective fines are imposed on a tribe only when some degree of collective responsibility for the crime can be ascertained. Ample opportunity is given to the tribe to collect the money and pay it. Adequate warning is also given before the attack, usually twenty-four hours and two hours before the time selected, and the targets are carefully chosen. Collective punishment is, in our opinion, the only practical method of dealing with offences of this kind in the Protectorate, as it is not possible in a territory which is not under direct administration by Her Majesty's Government to identify and arrest individual culprits, who would almost certainly be shielded by their fellow-tribesmen; nor, as a rule, has the head of the tribe concerned either the means or the will to hand over individuals.


May I ask who took the decision to indulge in these reprisals?


To the best of my recollection it was the Governor of Aden.


My Lords, I understand that the people concerned were under Her Majesty's protection. Is it the Government's view that the only way in which retribution can be exacted is by indiscriminate bombing of tribal property? Is it not extraordinary to have people under Her Majesty's protection being bombed by Her Majesty's own forces?


My Lords, I really cannot allow the noble Lord to make that statement. It was not indiscriminate bombing: the targets were carefully selected and adequate warning was given. It is the opinion of those concerned with maintaining law and order I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, does not suggest that offences of this kind should be condoned or should go unpunished—that action of this kind affords the best, most practical and, as I have said, most humane way of dealing with people who commit these crimes.


The difficulty seems to be that you punish people who are not guilty in order to frighten people who are guilty. How is it possible, when bombs are dropped indiscriminately on people's homes, to discriminate between people who have committed these offences and those who are innocent?


My Lords, in these tribal areas it has long been tribal custom that the tribe accept collective responsibility for the acts of their members. This is in line with a policy which has been pursued by successive Governments in the Aden Protectorate for many years.