HL Deb 30 May 1968 vol 292 cc1224-7

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

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will approach the Government of the Soviet Union with a view to obtaining an undertaking from all suppliers to stop arms to both sides in the Nigerian war.]


My Lords, it is greatly to be hoped that the talks now proceeding at Kampala will lead to agreement between the two sides on conditions for a cease-fire. But as I said yesterday, these talks are extremely delicate and there is a real danger that any unilateral move from outside could upset the sensitive basis on which they are taking place. Her Majesty's Government would be prepared to co-operate in a general standstill on further arms supplies if this were agreed between the two sides in Nigeria. Until then, it would be wrong for us to take a unilateral initiative of the kind the noble Lord has in mind.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his Answer, may I ask whether he is aware that unilateral action is not proposed? What is suggested is that we should approach other Governments which also supply arms, and should come to an agreement. Is it not the case that the main supplier, now that Czechoslovakia has ceased to be so, is Soviet Russia, and a "black market" is coming to Lisbon? Have we not—



My Lords, I am asking a question. Do we not have an agreement with Portugal which will enable us to stop the supplies from leaving Lisbon airport?


My Lords, for us to approach a foreign Government for the cutting off of supplies to a friendly Commonwealth Government to which we are a traditional supplier would be a unilateral act. Arms have been reaching both sides from a wide range of sources, Governmental and non-Governmental. I am sure the House will agree that international arms control is notoriously difficult to arrange, and an international arms ban which did not enjoy the support of two sides in a conflict would be virtually unenforceable. We should carefully reflect before undertaking any unilateral approach at this present moment, with the delicate conversations now taking place in Kampala.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend what is in my view a somewhat different but relevant question; namely, in the event of a satisfactory and just agreement being achieved at Kampala, would Her Majesty's Government consult with other Commonwealth Governments with a view to organising joint economic aid to the Biafrans, to help them restore their devastated towns and villages?


My Lords, this is clearly another question but, as I think has been said on other occasions, we shall have to see what we can do within the Commonwealth and perhaps in a wider field to see how we can repair the ravages of war, not only in Biafra but in Nigeria as a whole.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the present context of Nigeria as an independent State it would be far better for us to say, "Get together; argue the case out", so that we shall not be charged with interference? Then if we are requested to come in to help we shall certainly do so.


My Lords, I share the view of my noble friend. Clearly a solution in Nigeria that is to be lasting must be arrived at by both sides in Nigeria. On the other hand, whatever we can do, we will do.


My Lords, as my noble friend's answer is based on expediency, does he not also think there might be a moral case for stopping the arms?


My Lords, I do not answer on the ground of expediency but only on the reality of the position.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that at present, according to latest figures, there are 600,000 people living in refugee camps in Biafra alone, and there is a deep and widespread concern in this country that delivery of arms sanctioned by this country should be stopped forthwith and every effort made to relieve the human suffering which is now reaching terrifying proportions in that country? Can the noble Lord give us an assurance that Her Majesty's Government are taking the initiatitve in both these respects?


I regret, my Lords, that the right reverend Prelate was not present in a debate we had on this subject initiated by my noble friend, Lord Brockway, some time ago. The views of Her Majesty's Government in regard to the human suffering now taking place in Nigeria are well known. But the right reverend Prelate will appreciate that in this conflict there are two sides. Whether one side can be said to be more guilty than the other is always a question of view. At this present moment we are seeking a cease-fire in the first instance, and it is to this that we should now be bending all our efforts. We should do nothing that could prevent it.


My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House how he squares concern with human suffering with the fact that we are continuing to supply arms to one side or the other?


We have supplied weapons to a Government, a friendly Commonwealth Government. That is a responsibility of Her Majesty's Government.

A NOBLE LORD: It is a scandal.


The noble Lord may say it is a scandal, but we have a duty so to order our business. We are doing all we can. We have sought from the very beginning not only to prevent this conflict but to bring it to an end. That is what we now have in mind.


My Lords, can my noble friend make any hopeful statement to the House on the progress of negotiations in Kampala?


My Lords, as I said in my original statement, a delicate situation has arisen in Kampala and I think we should leave it to those who are negotiating there and to Mr. Arnold Smith, the Secretary-General, to see what he can do. I could not—and I think it would be unwise to do so at this stage—make any observation on the progress of those talks, except to express a very great hope that sanity and understanding will be there.


My Lords, while accepting that and that we all want it, may I ask the noble Lord whether he would relate this proposal to the present situation in Biafra? Is he aware that the International Red Cross has been refused permission to land medical supplies and food at Port Harcourt? How can we possibly go on to provide arms for the destruction of the people when they are not even allowed medical aid and food supplies?


My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, or at least should be aware, Port Harcourt is now in the hands of the Federal Government and therefore it is not available to Biafra. As to medical supplies and a general attitude to relieving suffering and avoiding unnecessary deaths, I have the greatest confidence in the Federal Government of Nigeria and also the military commands. The noble Lord may screw his face; but I have that confidence and I have reason to have that confidence.