HL Deb 03 February 1981 vol 416 cc1036-9

2.48 p.m.

Lord Chitnis

My Lords, I beg leave 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, in line with their belief in self-determination by the peoples of Afghanistan, Poland and elsewhere, they have made any representations to the United States Government against the renewal of military aid to the military-civilian junta in El Salvador.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade (Lord Trefgarne)

No, my Lords. The situation in El Salvador is not comparable to that in Afghanistan or Poland, where there is direct, or the threat of direct, intervention by Soviet troops. We would, of course, like the people of El Salvador to be able to determine their own future peacefully and democratically.

Lord Chitnis

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, may I ask whether he would agree that the scale of military involvement in El Salvador is increasing and that, whatever the differences may be now, American military assistance is already being used by the Russians as a reason to legitimise their own imperialist adventures? Would he also agree that the military containment of the Opposition Front guerrillas is not the solution to El Salvador's problems but will merely prolong them? In so far as labels are put on the Opposition Front by both the Salvadorean and American Governments, may I ask him to recognise that virtually every Member of your Lordships' House would be considered by the civilian and military junta in El Salvador to be a dangerous Communist?

Lord Trefgarne

I cannot answer for the views of the junta in El Salvador, my Lords, but to pick one of the nuggets from the noble Lord's supplementary—to do with the opposition parties in that country and particularly the Salvadorean FDR, as they are called—while that organisation indeed includes respectable politicians, it also embraces groups dedicated to violence and kidnappings, and included among the victims are United Kingdom businessmen. The aim of those groups appears to be to precipitate a civil war as a means of ousting the present Government. Our policy is to recognise states, not Governments, and the question therefore of officially recognising opposition parties does not arise.

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, according to the archdiocese of San Salvador, 10,000 unarmed citizens, including priests and nuns, were killed last year and that our latest information is that the killing continues by the security forces and their paramilitary associates? Is he also aware that all the major Churches of the United States have protested at the renewal of military supplies to the perpetrators of these barbaric deeds? May I further ask him whether the noble Lord the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary might use his very considerable and attractive influence to acquaint his American counterpart, bearing in mind that he has been busy with the return of the hostages and the presidential election, with the feeling in many parts of many lands that renewed military aid will only exacerbate the conflict and encourage oppression?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate began his supplementary question by reference to the killings which he said had been perpetrated by the junta in power in that country. It is certainly the case that there has been a great deal of violence in that country, but it has not all come from the Government side. As for the United States action, they have said that they resumed military aid to El Salvador because there is foreign intervention in that country in support of the guerrilla forces opposed to the Government.

Lord Soper

My Lords, may I reinforce what the right reverend Prelate has just said, and ask the Minister whether it is true that the Churches in El Salvador, and notably Archbishop Romero, just before he was cruelly murdered, insisted to the American Government, so far as they were able to do, that what was required was not military aid but social aid? May I further ask whether the noble Lord is aware that the British Council of Churches has expressed itself in similar terms? Does he not agree that the practical step would now be to establish negotiations on the part of the USA with the so-called opposition, which is in fact the dominant group, in regard to food and aid, rather than to succour a so-called Government which is not in true authority on the basis of gunships?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it is true that the position in El Salvador gives rise to very great concern, and it is of course also true that various Churches there have suffered cruelly in the violence which has taken place. The noble Lord referred to the death of Archbishop Romero. I in fact attended the memorial service to the Archbishop in London on behalf of my noble friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, and I am therefore well aware of the very real and justified feeling, and of the revulsion, which surrounded the tragic death of that Prelate. But on the general question of aid for that country, we have to decide our policies in that area according to the position as we find it, and I am happy that the present arrangements are appropriate in the present circumstances.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, serious as the question of El Salvador is, it is part of a much larger issue affecting the stability of Central America, including the Caribbeans? Can he assure us that when our Prime Minister meets the American President to discuss international affairs as well as monetary affairs a very high priority will be given to this area—a term which, in his last answer, he deliberately used? Both this country and the United States, hopefully with the co-operation of the Soviet Union, must do what they can to maintain and ensure stability in Central America and the Caribbeans.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I cannot of course forecast in detail what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will discuss with the American President when she meets him, but I can assure the noble Lord that the affairs of the Central American region will be very much in the mind of my right honourable friend and, indeed, my noble friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in their consultations with the American Government.

Lord Gardiner

My Lords, in view of the situation in El Salvador, will Her Majesty's Government not at least consider putting the matter on the agenda of the United Nations Human Rights Commission?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I understand that it is already on the agenda of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, who are I think meeting in a few days' time.

Baroness Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe

My Lords, since the noble Lord referred to aid and the concern which the Government have about that, and since there are over 150,000 displaced people who are in refugee camps still subject to harassment from Government troops, 10,000 children who have been orphaned and 100,000 people who have become exiled in neighbouring states as a result, may we ask the Government to show their concern by not being happy (as the noble Lord put it) with the present aid that we are giving? Can they not show their concern by making some contribution, perhaps through the voluntary agencies which have already given aid? As one gathers small sums may be available in the budget of ODA which have to be spent before the end of the financial year, can we not show what we feel about the human side of this tragic situation by making some contribution?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, perhaps I can answer the noble Baroness in two ways. First, on the question of the refugees, we understand—in fact, we know—that the International Committee of the Red Cross are mounting an appeal for the refugees from El Salvador. Details of that appeal reached the Government only yesterday, I think, and we are urgently considering what response we can make. But on the general question of development aid, I have to say that all the technical co-operation officers, who were the principal feature of our aid programme in that country, had perforce to be withdrawn when the embassy was closed in February of last year. Our present commitments are limited, first to the completion of the training of 11 Salvadoreans in the United Kingdom, and, secondly. to the financing of a second instalment of about £75,000 for tools and equipment for self-help housing. I am sorry to say that local conditions (which the noble Baroness will understand, I am sure) have caused considerable delay in the disbursement of the first instalment, and it is not therefore certain when we shall be able to disburse the second instalment.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, arising from an earlier reply, may I ask the Minister whether it is not the case that the United Nations Human Rights Commission is now in session in Geneva—it opened yesterday—and will the Government instruct their delegate to raise this question as a priority matter during that meeting?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the United Nations Human Rights Commission is meeting, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, indicated, very soon—in fact, I see from my notes, on 2nd February, so it is now already in session. It will complete its meeting on 14th March; and I understand that it will then be for the Salvadorean Government to indicate whether they will accept a mission, or whatever is decided upon, from the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and we shall have to see what to do in those circumstances.