HL Deb 10 March 1955 vol 191 cc904-9

3.7 p.m.

THE EARL OF CORK AND ORRERY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the revelations recently made both in this country and in the United States as to the treatment of prisoners of war in Korea, whether consideration will be given to taking steps to insert in Part I of the Geneva Convention, which deals with the treatment of prisoners of war, or in some other appropriate place, words to the effect that "Prisoners of war are not 'war criminals' and cannot therefore be punished by the enemy as such." The noble and gallant Earl said: My Lords, I am under no illusion why there is a fairly full House. I have been told, though in a courteous manner, to be quick and get out of the way. I shall endeavour to comply with the wish of the House. When I have asked my Question I hope to be told that all my fear is groundless and that the leak to which I shall refer has already been stopped. When I asked a Question recently on the same topic, I was told by the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, that Her Majesty's Government have no intention of altering anything in the Geneva Convention of 1949. I have not the slightest intention of attacking that Convention, because I believe it provides everything that can be required; but there is a loophole which would enable an unscrupulous enemy to get round its provisions although he was an adherent to the Convention.

Her Majesty's Government have recently issued a pamphlet called Treatment of Prisoners of War in Korea. Though moderately worded, the pamphlet leaves no doubt as to the terrible conditions under which many of our men had to exist during the recent war in Korea. Probably most noble Lords will have read that pamphlet. The details given in it are not new. In 1952, General MacArthur appointed a Commission to go into the question of war crimes in Korea, and their Interim Report, published in June, 1953, was illustrated by photographs taken on the spot which leave no doubt that the Chinese and North Koreans resorted to mass killing of prisoners as well as individual executions, and that prisoners were brutally treated and mutilated when they were either dead or dying. No medical attention was given to their wounds, and starvation was rife.

Besides this Report, several books have been published. I have read only two of them, written by unimpeachable witnesses, one being Captain Farrar-Hockley, the adjutant of the Gloucester Regiment at the Imjin River, and the other the chaplain of the same battalion, the Reverend C. J. Davies, who is quoted in the Government pamphlet. These two officers were captured together, were separated for some time and then, in rather peculiar circumstances, found themselves neighbours in prison cells. These cells measured 6 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet—the size of an average bath. They had been built for prisoners condemned to solitary confinement. We read of a private in the Gloucester Regiment who had been confined in one of these cells for six months. In a cell on the other side of the Reverend C. J. Davies was a young American air corporal who had been there many weeks for denying that he had taken part in germ warfare. These cells were filthy and crawling with lice. No water or washing was allowed, and in some cases even men with dysentery were not allowed to leave those cells for three or four days in succession. Some of the guards thought it rather a good joke.

In November last the Secretary of State for War announced in the other place that 100 of our officers and men who had been reported as missing in Korea, and who had not been subsequently accounted for, were to be considered as dead. Dead, no doubt—rotted to death in those horrible holes. It may be said with truth that every rule that is laid down in the 1949 Convention for Prisoners of War was not only broken, but broken cruelly and brutally in every way. Yet the Chinese Government claim to have adhered to that Convention and to be supporters of it. How can that be explained? It is explained in the Government pamphlet very simply. It is explained that the Chinese Government held that prisoners of war who had been convicted as war criminals should not be allowed to benefit by the terms of the Convention, and it is added that the Soviet and other Communist Powers support that view. This gives us a very sinister outlook for the future.

The Chinese consider that the war in Korea is a war of aggression, and, owing to the unfortunate decision, or want of decision, when the General Assembly of the United Nations incorporated some of the principles of the Charter of Nuremberg into International Law, a new crime was introduced—that of taking part in a war of aggression. The guilt in that connection is collective or individual. A man cannot escape. He is either one of a group or he has committed the crime himself. As I say, he cannot escape. I believe—no doubt I shall be corrected if I am wrong—that the word "aggression" in that context has never yet been satisfactorily defined, and that many international lawyers of repute have put forward definitions with no success; so it is not clear what is meant by the word "aggression". The Chinese have interpreted the word in such a way that they look upon every person who lands in Korea and in any way furthers the war effort of the United Nations there as a war criminal. They say that the United Nations is an aggressor; therefore anyone who takes part in that war is a war criminal and is liable to death. That view has been put forward very often.

Captain Farrar-Hockley was taken before three colonels for interrogation. The proceedings were opened by the senior colonel saying to him: "You are a war criminal; you have no other status but that of a criminal; it is only due to our mercy that you are alive." What he went through afterwards as the result of that interrogation has to be read to be believed. Intermittently for days he was tortured, half-drowned, flogged and kicked. He came out alive because he was a courageous, and a brave man. We acquiesced in its being laid down that every one taking part in a war of aggression was collectively and individually a war criminal, and so long as that holds it is a very poor look out for the future, particularly in respect of the war for which we are supposed to be preparing. The rule, or whatever it may be called, may have been very necessary and useful at the time when the Convention was drawn up. No one questions that. But, surely it is hopelessly out of date and we should do what we can to have it altered, so that in the future we shall not run the risk that our men will be subjected to such infernal treatment as they have suffered in the last few years.

What chance has the individual now got? Can you imagine that an individual of a battalion from Hong Kong, or of a ship's company diverted from some distant ocean, or of an air squadron sent as reinforcements to Korea, will be able to determine whether the orders he is acting under are legal or not? And what option has such a man got? None at all. Some noble Lords may say, "What is the good of putting these Questions down? It does not really matter what is laid down; if the Chinese want to break it they will do so." I do not think that that is quite borne out. The Chinese are not entirely impervious to world opinion outside their own country. They have frequently mentioned the Geneva Convention, and they have suggested that their actions were justified by it.

As your Lordships will remember, there was at one period no protecting Power, and the Red Cross for some time were not allowed to send their officials to visit prisoner of war camps when there was any question concerning the treatment which was being given to these prisoners, and their condition generally. Undoubtedly the fear that inspectors would find out how matters really stood was a potent factor in improving conditions in camps elsewhere. When discussions for an armistice in Korea were begun there was a change, and Red Cross officials were allowed to visit selected camps. Conditions then became better. I suggest that if something on the lines which I have suggested were inserted in the Geneva Convention, it would greatly strengthen the hands of the senior officer of any prisoner of war camp when he had to represent to the enemy authorities the desires, wishes and necessities of the prisoners who were in that camp. He could then point to these words, and so maintain that the prisoners were not war criminals and ought not to be treated as such. The senior officer, in those circumstances, would have some standing, and the uneducated are always impressed by something in print.

There is said to be a silver lining to every cloud, and in this case surely it is the bravery, the steadfast courage and the loyalty of our men when they were prisoners of war in the hands of these infernal torturers. Two typical cases are given in the Government publication. One is of a second lieutenant who sent his men to safety and said he could not go himself and must remain because, as he said, "I am an officer." That boy was only a very short time out of Sandhurst. The other was of a young private of the Northumberland Regiment who defied his captors all through and, as the official announcement said, was an inspiration to everybody of all ranks who met him. One of his offences was that he insisted on wearing a buttonhole on Coronation Day. One cannot read this account of what went on in Korea without noticing, particularly in the Gloucestershire Regiment, of which there were a large number of prisoners of war, how matters always came back to the senior noncommissioned officers. Their conduct appears to have been magnificent, as one would expect. And when I am talking about non-commissioned officers, I include the chief petty officers and petty officers of the Royal Navy, to whom I owe what success I have had in life. It is not always recognised that they are of the greatest value to the country and they should be much more recognised than they are.

If others will not go with us, surely we could try out a line of our own and say definitely that we will not tolerate the conviction or punishment of any subject of Her Majesty the Queen, of whatever creed or colour, unless he has been convicted after a proper trial on his own actions and taking into account the circumstances in which he was placed. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.


My Lords, I hope that I may be able to make this matter clear in a few words. The matter to which the noble and gallant Earl has drawn attention is already covered by the 1949 Prisoners of War Convention. A prisoner of war may, in accordance with Article 99 of that Convention, be tried and sentenced for an act which is for-bidden by International Law. This, however, is subject to the safeguards that the act must have been forbidden at the time when it was committed and that there must be a fair trial in accordance with the provisions of the Convention. Therefore, if a prisoner of war has committed a war crime recognised by International Law, he may be tried and, if convicted, be punished; but a prisoner of war is not, as such, a "war criminal." Thus the action taken by the Chinese in the Korean war to brand British prisoners of war as "war criminals" without proper trial, and to subject them, in consequence, to appallingly bad treatment, is entirely contrary to the 1949 Prisoners of War Convention as it stands at present.

Her Majesty's Government entirely share the feelings of indignation to which the noble and gallant Earl has given expression, and I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to-day of making this absolutely clear, and also of making clear the profound admiration which we must all feel for the conduct of British prisoners of war during their captivity.


My Lords, it would obviously be wrong to pursue this matter further now, but is the noble Lord who has answered for the Government aware that many of us are deeply impressed by what the noble and gallant Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, has said? It would be unfortunate if, because of procedure in your Lordships' House, the impression were given that this is a matter in which we are not interested. Some of us may want to revert to it at a later date to ask what action it is proposed to take. After all, the Government published this document and they are still in diplomatic relations with the Chinese Government.