HL Deb 18 June 1974 vol 352 cc886-900

7.0 p.m.


rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider the making of an official declaration at the highest level to the effect that they will never, as a point of principle, negotiate with kidnappers, hijackers, or other blackmailers who use the threat of violence for political or financial ends. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, at this rather late hour I do not think it is worth while taking up your Lordships' time with a long and unedifying list of the various acts of terrorism—hijacking and kidnapping, art thefts for political ends and various forms of moral blackmail—of the kind I had in mind when I framed my Question. Ten years ago—it is almost unbelievable to think of it—we hardly knew what an aircraft hijacking was. Now we are hearing of new cases virtually every week. The list is increasing rapidly, rather like a geometrical progression. Why is it? What has happened to make this new and peculiarly loathsome form of terrorism and violence assume such dramatic, indeed epidemic, proportions?

My Lords, there are obviously several reasons, but I believe that among the main ones is the fact that it has been seen that far too often this particular technique has proved successful: from those very early days when, for example, the Government yielded to the threats of hijackers who had landed a large British airliner in the Middle East, and freed the hijacker of another aeroplane, Leila Khaled, to that appalling incident only last week when, in order to try to ensure that there should be no untoward incidents during the World Cup, the Germans let out two particularly loathsome specimens of the terrorist breed without there even having been a threat at the time. I think, therefore, that if we are going to worry about how to stop this ghastly escalation of violence, the first thing that we must understand is that we shall never be able to stop it so long as there is any belief that it works. If we are going to stop it, we have got to show that, whatever has happened in the past, at least in the future, and in this country, it is not going to work: that we shall have no truck of any kind with people of this sort.

Now it is not enough, my Lords, in my submission, simply to say that we will wait until the next incident occurs and that we shall then take a firm line. If we wait, first of all we shall find ourselves in a far weaker position than we are in now, when we do not in fact at this moment happen to have, figuratively speaking, a terrorist gun sticking into our ribs. Also, of course, it will simply mean that one more person or one more very large group of persons will be inconvenienced, jeopardised and, at best, terrorised out of their wits. How much better it would be if we were to anticipate the situation and act now to do all we can—we cannot do everything, but we can do something—to try to ensure that this does not continue as it has done.

The way I am suggesting doing it, the way I should like to see it done, would be, as I say, by the drafting and promulgation of an official declaration to say that we would in no possible circumstances at any time or anywhere have any dealings with terrorists or people trying to blackmail us morally. We would promulgate this declaration with all the formality and with all the publicity that we could command in the highest possible forum—that of the United Nations. By doing it at this level, we should make it absolutely plain that we were serious about this, that we meant what we said, because it would be plain to the world that, having made a declaration of this kind, we could not immediately go back on it the first time it was challenged. This would prove our own good faith and would make it very much easier for us to take a strong line when we needed to do so. We should draft it in a form which would not only be totally categorical but which would also enable other nations to adhere to it, so that ultimately one might have a sort of charter to which many nations would have subscribed.

My Lords, if we were to do this, what would the reactions be? The first reaction, at the lowest, would be that somewhere a blow would have been struck, and someone would have said in the strongest possible terms that they did not propose to be pushed around any longer. That is at the lowest, at the worst; but there is more to it than that. I believe that if we were to do this, and if we were to prove that we meant it, quite soon prospective terrorists would see that we meant business and, when they wished to plot another hijacking or kidnapping, or whatever it might be, would turn their attention in some other direction, towards some other, more craven nation which had not had the guts to nail its colours to the mast in the way we had. This, in turn, I like to think, might encourage other nations to do what we had done, and so gradually one might build up a collection of nations all of whom were prepared to take a firm, collective stand.

Now what are the objections? There is obviously one considerable objection. I do not believe that in fact it holds water, but I see its very considerable strength. People will say, "That is all very well, but suppose you have an airliner hijacked on the ground with 150 or 250 innocent women and children in it. Are you really going to allow them to go up in smoke?" My Lords, I agree that this is an absolutely nightmarish and appalling decision, and I am deeply grateful to think that I shall never be in a position of having to take it; but in fact this is an over-simplification. First of all, experience tells us that when a firm line is taken such innocent hostages very seldom, if ever, indeed, get shot or liquidated. Secondly, we should remember that it is not as simple as that; that it is not just this plane-load which is being jeopardised. It is countless other planeloads in the future; because there is one thing of which we can be utterly certain; that is, that the moment we make it clear that this sort of technique works, that we give in, then the next plane-load of schoolchildren, and the next and the next, will inevitably be in far greater danger than they would have been, and rather than hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of lives will be jeopardised.

The same goes, obviously, for kidnappings. In the last couple of years we have had three cases of British diplomats in South America being kidnapped. In those three cases we have, for one reason or another, not given in to threats. Nevertheless, the temptations and the pressures have clearly been very high. But if we were to ransom an Ambassador of ours, which we should obviously very much like to do, we should in fact be putting all the rest of our Foreign Service at far greater risk. We should be proving to terrorists that they can get away with it by doing this sort of thing. Is this really wise? Similarly, if, in this country, the Ambassador of a friendly, allied Power were to be kidnapped, when we would in fact be under an even greater moral obligation to ransom him in some way or another—after all, he would have diplomatic privileges and be a guest in our country—should we do so we should have to ransom every other foreign diplomat in this country who would very probably get kidnapped as a result of our having given in the first time.

My Lords, I am not so arrogant as to believe that any terrorist is going to dream that he is ever going to get very much for kidnapping me, but in case I ever were kidnapped I should like to make my own little statement now that I hope very much that nobody will ever give a penny for my safety, or to get me back. There is only one other objection that I can see. People will feel—indeed, one or two people have mentioned it to me already—that it is going too far to say that we will never give in to this sort of thing. Let us instead say that we will not give in, they say. in my submission, I do not think a declaration of that sort would be worth the paper it was printed on. When, indeed, is it ever a good thing, when is it ever right, to give in to moral blackmail of this kind? I believe it is never right, and I should like this country and this Government to go on record as saying so as fully, as categorically and as soon as possible.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, I rise with great diffidence to address your Lordships for the first time. Although I have been a Member of your Lordships' House for many years, I have not felt able to take part until I retired from the Army last October. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, for enabling me to speak on this subject to-day because it is urgent that we continually review what our correct reaction should be if ever there was a serious hijacking incident in this country, and that we should try to develop a better range of options than exists at present. The Tokyo and Hague Conventions provide a satisfactory and progressive framework in the international field, but unfortunately they have been ratified only by a proportion of nations.

Our own Hijacking Bill provides the necessary legislation for the punishment and extradition of the hijackers once they are caught. But the Government of the day, at this moment, have very few and rather unsatisfactory courses available to them while a hijacking incident is actually in progress. Any negotiation with those ruthless enough to use hijacking as an act of political pressure, can be conducted only from a position of weakness. To yield to any part of their demands merely enhances the future prospects of hijacking and invites further repetition. On the other hand, any offensive action by Security Forces on the tarmac is equally unsatisfactory.

Sometime before I retired, I was involved in making plans to co-ordinate military and police action in the event of an aircraft being hijacked. Perhaps I should add that it was not in this country. That experience made me realise what little positive action is available to Security Forces in trying to release the hijacked passengers alive and safe. The sniper's bullet was perhaps the only weapon of retaliation that we had, and that is not entirely satisfactory. However great the skill of the marksman and the development and improvement of telescopic sights and so forth, there is always the grave risk that innocent passengers may also be hit. Furthermore, it is a long process, and once two or three hijackers have been picked off, the remaining hijackers, realising that their turn is coming soon, may take desperate action and blow up the aircraft, thus defeating the whole operation.

The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, has on several occasions in your Lordships' House referred to gas or a device which would temporarily and harmlessly render unconscious everybody in or near the aircraft—both passengers and hijackers alike—whereupon the police could arrest the hijackers and release the passengers none the worse for wear, we hope, when they regained consciousness. But, alas, even this is not entirely satisfactory unless unconsciousness came to everybody on board in an instant; otherwise again the hijacker, feeling unconsciousness coming over him or seeing others nearby falling unconscious, would realise what is happening and take some desperate action. But perhaps the hope that we can one day have a weapon which provides instant oblivion may be asking too much as it sounds rather like science fiction.

Since neither negotiation nor tarmac action is satisfactory, one is driven to considering the only remaining course; that of declaring that there will be no negotiation, thus automatically condemning the hijacked passengers to the mercies of their hijackers. The West German public, when hosts at the Olympic Games, were quite unprepared for the tragic situation which confronted them at Munich in 19/2. I do not thinkthat we in this country are any better prepared to face a situation of an airliner with perhaps 200 passengers held at gunpoint on the tarmac of a British airport while their fanatical captors demand from the Government of the day their political requirements. I doubt whether many members of the British public would be prepared to see those passengers condemned; they would expect some positive action to be taken.

Of course a declared policy of no negotiation would not be very good sales talk for our airlines. I can see a situation in which the discerning traveller would choose to fly on certain routes with those airlines whose national policy did not condemn them outright in the event of the aircraft being seized. Whatever course we adopt, the best way to reduce the number of hijacking incidents is undoubtedly good security at the airports. Any passenger who complains of the inconvenience of searches and checks, and demands their curtailment, must accept full responsibility for any increase in the number of hijacking incidents.

However, even good security is not the complete answer because however vigilant we are in this country we may not have the same safeguards in aircraft landing at our airports from elsewhere. The last Government and the present Government have tried and continue to try to get hijackers outlawed and also to have sanctions brought against nations who harbour and train hijackers. This is by far and away the best practical counter to hijacking. I hope that this short and valuable debate will bring about a realisation of exactly how inadequate our options are at the moment and that it will restore us to renewed and vigorous efforts to try to achieve general international agreement to this civilised policy. If we cannot get full agreement from all nations, the time has now come when we should get together with those nations who do agree with us, apply sanctions ourselves and take a lead in positively outlawing hijacking once and for all. If we cannot achieve this by diplomatic means, we must leave it to the pilots' and aircrews' association to show us the way.

It is easier to discuss hijacking in the context of the unlawful seizure of aircraft because it is so clearly defined and we have had so many experiences to call on. Also, our legislation against hijacking has been exclusively involved with aircraft. However, as we have so recently seen, hijacking can take many different forms, and this Question which we are debating to-day specifically refers to hijacking in general and not specifically to the hijacking of aircraft. I hope that as "hijacking" is a new word in our legal vocabulary, it will in all future relevant legislation, be included to cover all forms of hijacking, whether of individuals, or of groups of people, and whether in aircraft or in any other situation. I hope also that it will be liable, in whatever form it takes, to the toughest measures against the individuals concerned, once they are caught. I am most grateful to your Lordships for listening to me to-day.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, my first and very pleasant duty is to congratulate my noble friend Lord Cathcart on what he has just said. Many of us have seen him sitting patiently on the Cross-Benches while he increased in military rank to a very high level indeed, and wondered at the patience with which he refrained from taking part in your Lordships' debates. Now at last the opportunity is his and he has chosen an occasion not only to make a very interesting and useful speech but, I am afraid, to pre-empt most of the things that I wanted to say. So I cannot altogether thank him though he has taken exactly the line that I would have hoped, because he has dwelt upon the twin issues of applied psychology and practical preparedness which are the pair that you need to deal with this situation.

I am fairly certain that the noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, is right to urge us not to wait until an incident puts us to the test, but in the end I suspect that our deeds are going to be more effective than our words and I merely hope that successive Governments in this country have not gained a reputation for easily giving in or being likely to do so. I do not want to inject a sour note into this debate but I want to say one thing: we are up against a fairly major challenge to law and order both national and international. I agree with the noble Viscount that there is a novelty of scale, variety and sophistication. But I do not underestimate the seriousness of certain recent incidents at home in this country. I shall not start talking about Clay Cross or defiance of the Industrial Relations Court, because these problems are part of a saga which is still unfolding. I would much rather keep Party politics out of this and, if I can, apply my mind to presenting a united front to the rest of the world in the face of international barbarity.

But I must say one word of warning to the Government. A Government which cannot stand up to defiance and the flouting of domestic laws within its own boundaries by its own citizens may find its credibility called increasingly into question; first, abroad, by those who think of choosing the United Kingdom as the scene for one of their atrocities; and, secondly, at home, by sensible public opinion, which any Government must carry with it if it is to be firm in the fight against international terrorism. If we are to enjoy the sort of steadiness which I noticed yesterday when a bomb went off in the precincts of this Palace, and the sort of steadiness which we also enjoyed during the last War, I do not think we can take this for granted. It has to be fostered by continuing sound leadership and example. This must be very strictly borne in mind.

The problem has already been set out by previous speakers. Whether it comes from the international Left-wing revolutionary or from one of the protagonists of the Middle East, or a mixture of the two, which seems to be the commonest form at the moment, some horror may be brought about within our jurisdiction—and, indeed, it is daily, by the I.R.A. and the extremists on the other side—and when the perpetrators are caught and imprisoned one is faced with a new outrage planned to secure their release. What do we do about it? Since the campaigns are largely international—and my noble friend Lord Cathcart has pointed out the lack of an international police force to look after them—suitable targets can be found in any country. I have no doubt the noble Viscount is right in saying that the stage for the savagery is likely to be set in the country where guerrillas think they can get away with it. Once you give in, you cause a repetition over and over again of the sickening and brutish crimes being committed here or in our ships or aircraft. This is what we must guard against.

I shall listen with interest to what the Government have to say, but I hope I may be brutally blunt for a moment. There will be some people in this country whose heads are, if anything, even softer than their hearts and who will bleat in favour of instant surrender. There are also others, I believe, who will say that they cannot see why citizens of the United Kingdom should be endangered because of a stand on principle by their Government related to the existence of some crisis in the Middle East or the doctrines of Castro or Guevara. I would simply say that if they think that, then their soft and insular heads are even further in the sand than I thought. I would ask such people whether they really consider that this problem is one which has no bearing on our way of life in this country.

After all, people from all over the world have for centuries come to Britain, because they find here a freedom and tolerance which they cannot find in other countries overseas. Do those who would give in think that this freedom and tolerance has come about just by chance? History shows that it has not. It derives from battles here and overseas in which a great deal of blood has been spilled. It will be defended now against new and perhaps more insidious attacks only by equal resolution and, I am sorry to say, probably by the spilling of yet more blood. We cannot afford to be squeamish and lukewarm in our reactions to this sort of thing. I hope that the Government and the noble Lord. Lord Harris, will make it perfectly clear that if ever they have to act they will be neither lukewarm nor squeamish, but are determined to continue with the resolution that we know we must show in the face of this sort of danger.

7.25 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by agreeing on one point at least, and indeed on many others, made by the noble Viscount who has just resumed his seat; that is, in warmly congratulating the noble Earl on his maiden speech. I made my own maiden speech sufficiently recently to know what a tiresome business it is, and on behalf of noble Lords on both sides of your Lordships' House I should like to say how much we appreciated what the noble Earl said. I can say that particularly easily because I found myself in almost total agreement with his remarks.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, said he would do his very best not to he controversial. I welcomed that assurance. He hovered on the brink of making a point about the Clay Cross councillors, and then decided against it—because I am sure that, on reflection, he would agree that the prospect of the sort of terrorists we have been discussing this evening, meeting in some conceivably Middle-Eastern capital and discussing what a group of urban district councillors have been doing in Derbyshire, is a little far from reality. Apart from that point, over which the noble Viscount hovered, I found myself in very substantial agreement with what he said.

I turn now to the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, who introduced this debate this evening. The issue that he raised is indeed of the deepest concern to us all. Violence, or the threat of it, in pursuance of political ends has become a frighteningly familiar feature of the modern world and, as he said, in terms of hijacking and the other episodes which he catalogued, it is a relatively recent arrival, certainly in the dimensions of this problem.

We in the United Kingdom have seen terrorism break out within our own country and Northern Ireland and over the last few years our interests both here and abroad have been the targets of other brands of terrorism. In the North and South of the American continent our diplomats have been kidnapped. As recently as three months ago a British airliner was hijacked by Arab terrorists. Other countries have also suffered grievously. There have, for instance, been the vicious attacks on airline passengers at the Lod, Athens and Rome airports and the tragedy at the Olympic Games which was alluded to earlier.

There is no need for me to catalogue all the murderous acts of violence that have been committed in the name of various political ideals to prove the seriousness of the threat that has been the subject of this debate this evening. Nor, I fear, is there any sign of its abating. All balanced people abhor the use of indiscriminate violence for political ends. Only the twisted idealism or, in many cases, the mental imbalance of fanatics can lead people to think otherwise. As the United Nations Secretariat concluded in a study published in November, 1972: … there are some means of using force, in every form of human conflict, which must not be used, even when the use of force is legally and morally justified, and regardless of the status of the perpetrator. Like our predecessors, this Government are determined to take firm action to meet the threat of terrorism wherever it may arise. We intend to do all that is reasonably practicable to this end. In recent years our defences have been built up considerably. Of course—and I fear this is inevitable—many of these precautions depend upon secrecy for their efficiency. It only helps the terrorist to discuss them openly; but it may be worth reminding the House of some of those which we can in fact discuss this evening.

In the aviation context, comprehensive security measures are now in force. The Government have taken steps to ensure that all airlines, British and foreign, search passengers and hand-baggage on international scheduled flights at United Kingdom airports. Security surveys have been made at all our international airports. British airlines, with the support of our embassies abroad, are constantly seeking to ensure adequate security for their operations at foreign airports. The Protection of Aircraft Act, passed last year, enables the Government to give aviation authorities directions on the security measures they should take if they fail to do voluntarily all that the Government consider necessary.

In general, it falls primarily to the police to take action against the threat of terrorism. Good intelligence and careful contingency planning are of the essence. The police co-operate closely with other services, such as the Immigration Service, in this country and with their counterparts in oilier countries. Those concerned have some notable successes to their credit, both in catching people who have committed terrorist outrages and in forestalling would-be terrorists. A number of unwelcome visitors have, for example, been detected at air and sea ports before they could get into this country. When terrorists present a threat which the resources of the police are inadequate to deal with, military assistance is available. It is distasteful both to the Government and to the military authorities that the Armed Forces should become involved in maintaining civil peace. But when terrorists are themselves armed with sophisticated military weapons, it is clearly necessary that the Government should make assistance available to the police and that has been done in the past and will be done in the future.

Clearly, we must take stringent precautions against the threats that face us. Terrorists choose their targets so indiscriminately, however, that an open society like ours is bound to be vulnerable. Tougher measures which might make us less exposed can be imagined. A greater degree of regimentation—identity cards, police powers to stop and search people at random, control over the expression of dissent, records of people's opinions and connections—these and similar measures might increase our protection by a percentage point or two. But they would not guarantee a 100 per cent., security and their introduction would undermine the values of the society we are striving to protect.

Our first aim must be to forestall terrorism. What should we do when we fail and are faced by demands from terrorists? It is clearly wrong to yield to force. If it is seen that force succeeds where legitimate argument fails, concession to one act of violence will breed more. If we yield to those who threaten the lives of hostages or kidnap victims, out of compassion to the innocent sufferers, we place in danger potential victims of future outrages. The noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, invites the Government to announce their determination to follow the path of reason, to commit themselves categorically, as a matter of principle, never to negotiate with kidnappers, hijackers, or other blackmailers. I take it that the noble Viscount does not mean by the wording of his Question that the representations of terrorists should not be received at all. Frankly, it does not seem to me that it matters what Governments say about their attitude to terrorism. What counts is what they do. If, in practice, we show that nothing is to be won by terrorist blackmail we can, I hope, lessen the risk.

This Question covers purely criminal actions as well as terrorism. Since the targets of criminal kidnapping and hostage-taking—offences which, fortunately, have not afflicted this country to the same degree as some others, including, notably, the United States in recent months—are generally wealthy individuals or private institutions, and the object the extraction of money, this Government, or any future Government, may not necessarily be directly involved. The attractions of crimes of this sort depend on the prospects of success. I must emphasise to the noble Viscount that the Government could not prevent those on whom demands were made from yielding if they were so disposed. This is the very essence of the type of crime involved. But in principle the same arguments apply. If the police are able to counter such crimes successfully and those blackmailed do not make payments, such crimes will not seem an attractive proposition.

I turn now to international action against terrorism. This Government share the conviction of their predecessors that terrorism must be countered by effective international co-operation. This takes place at all levels—between the police forces and other agencies who have to work day-to-day to ensure the greatest practical degree of protection against terrorism. Her Majesty's Government have always taken a leading role, both when our predecessors were in office and during the lifetime of this Government, in ensuring international co-operation in this field. We have ratified the two main conventions dealing with aviation security—the Hague Convention on hijacking (dealt with in the Hijacking Act 1971) and the Montreal Convention on sabotage (covered by the Protection of Aircraft Act 1973). Sixty-eight and 51 countries have now ratified these conventions respectively. The Government played an active part in the drafting of the United Nations Convention for the Protection of Diplomats, which was completed at the end of last year. Its ratification is now under consideration.

The United Kingdom delegation to the Extraordinary Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation held in Rome last August—and this matter was touched on in questions in this House a few weeks ago—fought hard, but unfortunately without success to secure the necessary support for measures to apply sanctions to States which harbour hijackers. It was evident at that meeting that the international will for such action does not unfortunately exist at present. But we shall continue to support any constructive proposals at ICAO and we should play a full part in the discussion on aviation security at the meeting to be held in Montreal in September. I hope that what I have said tonight will indicate the seriousness with which the Government are continuing to treat this problem. The issues raised in the debate are constantly before Ministers, and I can assure your Lordships that the present Government will do all in their power to frustrate the demented ideologies which have been responsible for the outrages that have been committed in so many other parts of the world. The Government will not rule out any action, however difficult, so long as it is consistent with our traditions as a civilised democracy.