HL Deb 24 April 1963 vol 248 cc1209-13

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask the Private Notice Question which is in my name. It is as follows: to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement on the situation in Laos.


My Lords, the situation in Laos remains very serious.

One of the main causes is that there has been no progress as yet in integrating the three rival armies which had taken part in the civil war there. This was a central feature of the Geneva settlement and the signatories had a right to expect progress. Pending such action there is certainly an obligation on each party to desist from trying to secure advantage over the others by a recourse to arms. Left wing forces, very probably stiffened with North Vietnamese in contravention of the Geneva Agreement, have been driving the Neutralist supporters of the Prime Minister out of their position in the Plain of Jars in support of a rebel to the Prime Minister's authority. The whole settlement has been put in grave jeopardy and this must concern us both as signatories to the Agreement and because of the British Foreign Secretary's responsibilities as co-chairman of the Laos Conference.

On the spot, our Ambassador, with the Soviet Ambassador's co-operation, has been extremely active in support of the efforts of the Prime Minister of Laos to halt the fighting, to get the contending leaders to agree and to restore the situation. He has also been working very closely with the chairman of the International Control Commission, Mr. Avtar Singh, of India, and his Canadian and Polish fellow Commissioners to secure the right of the International Control Commission to travel anywhere in the country and maintain a presence where-ever it is necessary to fulfil the terms of the Geneva Agreement.

This is of the first importance and it is this aspect of the matter which I have stressed in my contacts with Mr. Gromyko, the Soviet co-chairman of the Laos Conference. It is a sad blow to our ability to help the situation in Laos and to the relationship between the cochairmen that Mr. Gromyko has failed to agree to our proposals for joint action and has chosen to publish unilaterally his own part of our exchanges. My reasons for suggesting changes to the draft message he had prepared should be clear from my side of our correspondence, which I have now been obliged to release to the Press, and of which copies have been placed in the Library of the House.

Briefly, the Soviet insisted on one-sided allegations against the American Government which seemed to me to be unsubstantiated and to prejudge the issue before we had learnt the International Commission's views. Your Lordships will see, however, that a very large measure of agreement was reached as to what the two co-chairmen thought should be done, and in the circumstances, and because the situation is so serious, I thought it right that, although no action by the co-chairmen is now possible, Her Majesty's Government should draw the attention of the Government of Laos and the Control Commission to the common views expressed in the exchanges between Mr. Gromyko and myself. Our Ambassador in Vientiane has been asked to do this.

If this is a set-back, we can draw some encouragement from the fact that a new truce seems to have halted fighting on the spot. I hope that, this time, the truce will hold. The International Control Commission is there to help to this end. Despite Mr. Gromyko's attitude, I very much hope that it will now be accepted on all sides that the Commission should, with the full co-operation of all, inhibit by its presence any renewal of fighting and exercise its authority to arrange that the situation which prevailed before the recent Pathet Lao advances is fully restored.

This will be a test of the good faith of all parties in Laos and also of the other signatories of the Geneva Agreement. It is not, in our view, the result of any defect in the Agreement that these dangerous developments have come about. The Agreement makes clear provision for what should be done if such developments should occur. It also provides for the proper investigation and assessment of accusations that there has been foreign interference in Laos. It is very regrettable and disturbing that there have been indications that there may be an intention on one side to by-pass and frustrate this machinery in order to jeopardise the whole settlement. It has been most valuable to me that it has been possible to have an exchange of views with Mr. Averell Harriman. He has expressed the unwavering support of the United States for the Geneva settlement for an independent unaligned Laos.

The next few days should show whether the settlement is to be allowed to survive or not, and I shall keep noble Lords fully informed. I need scarcely emphasise how harmful it will be to the prospects of reaching agreement based on mutual advantage in the future if this outstanding example of the ability of East and West to reach a constructive solution to their problems by negotiation is allowed to fail.


My Lords, the House is grateful to the Foreign Secretary for the very full statement which he has given. I think we all must regard it as a disturbing statement. The House will remember that when the Geneva Agreements were reached there was a world-wide sense of relief that this disturbing and dangerous situation was being brought under control, and I think the House will agree that recently there has been a good deal of concern at developments which seem to be moving back from the progress that had been made at Geneva.

I think the House will join with me in welcoming the efforts the Foreign Secretary has been making as co-chairman of the Geneva Conference, together with Mr. Gromyko, to settle the recent unfortunate developments. I think it is most regrettable that those efforts should have been blocked by Mr. Gromyko. I think it is clear to all of us that what was necessary, and what is necessary, is joint representation from the co-chairmen to the Laotian Government. This effort which was promised has been spoilt by the insistence of Mr. Gromyko on including in the proposed joint statement a charge against the United States Government—a charge which is rejected by the United States Government and, I believe, rejected by Her Majesty's Government. It seems to me that in a situation of this sort everybody should avoid introducing charges and counter-charges which can only bedevil the situation further.

I am very much in agreement with the statement by the Foreign Secretary that the International Control Commission should be brought into effective operation. I believe that it is true that if that Commission were operating fully in all parts of the territory there would be little room for charges and counter-charges because the Commission could give us the facts. But I think we all agree that what is necessary now is that the two cochairmen should persist in their efforts to influence the situation in Laos in order to get the three factions to co-operate genuinely on the basis of the Geneva settlements, and that the fullest possible use should be made of the International Control Commission to that end.

I think it is true that if this situation is not eased and brought to a settlement it contains the seeds of very great danger to the peace of the world. I hope we are not going to have the efforts frustrated by the insistence of Mr. Gromyko. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will continue to press him to withdraw his insistence. I am not sure whether this is not a case of a concession from the Soviet Government to the Chinese Government. But if it is, it is at the expense of the prospects of peace in Laos. I am very glad that the Foreign Secretary has said that he will report to the House any further developments. We hope that he will persist in his efforts, and we wish him success in what he is trying to do.


Hear, hear!


My Lords, while thanking the Foreign Secretary for his very clear and detailed statement, may I ask him whether it is possible under the Geneva Agreement, in spite of the attitude of Mr. Gromyko, to put into operation the machinery under this Agreement which is referred to; and in particular, if necessary, to have an investigation and an assessment of accusations that there has been foreign interference in Laos?


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson. I think it is quite useless to fling around charges and counter-charges. Under the Geneva Agreements, the essential thing is that the International Control Commission should have a free run of are denying the ability of the Commission to go to the territory which is in their control. We had hoped that Souvanna Phouma and his Neutralist Party would establish themselves and that after a period of time there would be elections. No progress has been made in that. But I think the important thing now is to work away on the spot, to see to it that the International Control Commission is able to establish itself, and particularly in the Plain of Jars, which is the centre of the trouble.

So far as the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, is concerned, under the Geneva Agreements it is perfectly possible for the International Control Commission to go all over the country in Laos, provided that the Government of Laos make that request; and indeed they could do so under their own initiative. What has happened from my exchanges with Mr. Gromyko is that they can no longer—at least, not at present—do so, as a result of a joint message from the two co-chairmen. But I very much hope that the Prime Minister of Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma, will see to it that the International Control Commission is able to go wherever they wish to go and to establish, in particular, a permanent presence in the Plain of Jars.