HL Deb 29 October 1985 vol 467 cc1464-71

3.45 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, with leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement about the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Nassau and the visit to New York. The Statement is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

The Statement is as follows:

"I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a brief statement on my visits to Nassau for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting from 16th to 22nd October, and to New York on 23 rd and 24th October for the 40th anniversary of the United Nations. My right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary accompanied me to Nassau.

"I have arranged for copies of the communique from the Commonwealth meeting to be placed in the Library of the House.

"Much of our time at that meeting was devoted to the problems of South Africa. We were unanimous in our abhorrence of apartheid; in our wish to see fundamental peaceful change in South Africa as soon as possible; and in our desire to find practical ways in which the Commonwealth could help secure that objective.

"As my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has already told the House, we reached an agreement which was endorsed by all 46 Governments attending the meeting. That agreement is set out in the Commonwealth Accord on Southern Africa. I wish to emphasise four points from the Accord.

"First, we called on the South African Government to establish a dialogue with representatives of the black community with a view to establishing a non-racial and representative government.

"Second, the dialogue should be initiated in the context of a suspension of violence on all sides.

"Third, we agreed to set up a group of eminent Commonwealth persons to encourage and facilitate dialogue.

"Fourth, we agreed on a programme of common action which incorporated a number of measures we were already taking, together with two new measures of which my right honourable and learned friend has already informed the House.

"The Commonwealth Accord is a clear political signal from the united members of the Commonwealth of the need for rapid change within South Africa as well as of the need for the South African Government to end its illegal occupation of Namibia. We shall review the situation in six months' time.

"The Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed on a number of other matters including: a declaration on world order reaffirming the support of the Commonwealth for the United Nations; a welcome for the report of the Commonwealth Consultative Group on the vulnerability of small states; the need for greater co-operation both to counter the international traffic in illicit drugs and to deny to those convicted of drug trafficking the proceeds of their crime; and the need for greater co-operation to prevent and combat terrorism.

"Mr. Speaker, I believe that the outcome of this meeting demonstrated the capacity of the Commonwealth, despite widely varying initial views, to reach a sensible and realistic agreement acceptable to all Governments. Its rejection of violence as a way to solve the problems of South Africa is of particular importance. I believe that the outcome of the meeting is one which fully meets the interests and concerns of the United Kingdom.

"I subsequently visited New York from 22nd to 24th October to address the 40th anniversary Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations and for meetings with other Heads of Government. I held bilateral discussions with President Reagan, Mr. Craxi, Mr. Peres, Premier Zhao Ziyang, and the Secretary General of the United Nations. I also attended a meeting with Present Reagan and with the Heads of Government of Canada, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy and Japan, to discuss the forthcoming meeting between the President and Mr. Gorbachev. We expressed our support for and confidence in President Reagan's approach to this important meeting. We wish him well."

That concludes the Statement, my Lords.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are very grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the long Statement. The conference was inevitably dominated by the question of sanctions against South Africa as a mechanism for persuading the South African Government to institute measures of peaceful change away from apartheid. We join the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in their expression of "abhorrence and loathing" of apartheid. We also welcome the Prime Minister's calling for the lifting of the ban on the ANC and for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. Will the Government participate in talks with the ANC when that organisation meets with the group of eminent persons to which the Statement refers, which is to be charged with negotiating with South Africa?

We also warmly support what was said about Namibia, about the drug traffic and about international terrorism. It seems that it has been agreed that there will be limited sanctions for six months. If, by that time, there has not been a significant move on the question of apartheid, then more severe sanctions will be imposed by those who decide to do so. What do the Government intend to do at the end of that six months if, as Mr. Botha is now saying, he and his government propose to disregard the measures which were proposed by the Commonwealth Conference? Will Her Majesty's Government then firmly join with other Commonwealth countries in imposing economic sanctions? I believe that to be the crucial question in relation to this Statement and it is the reply to that that will be listened to here and across the world.

Further, who is to represent Britain in this group of eminent persons? As we understand, the Prime Minister was hoping at one stage that her right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary would be the person concerned. We understand that there has been a change of mind on that. Can the noble Viscount indicate whether the Government will perhaps follow the guidance of the Secretary General, Mr. Ramphal, on the question of the composition of the deputation?

Lastly, is it the case, as has been reported over the weekend in the press, that Britain still has two military attachés in South Africa? I am bound to say that I was surprised to learn that they were still there and I should be glad of confirmation of that. If these gentlemen are there, why are they retained there, and are they to be withdrawn very quickly?

Lord Diamond

My Lords, we on these Benches, too, are grateful to the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, for being good enough to repeat this important Statement. The first thing we want to do is to share in expressing our utter loathing of the system of apartheid and to support everything that can be done in a peaceful way to bring it to an end.

We welcome most of what has been said in the Statement. I therefore need not go into it in any detail, except to say this. With regard to the meeting with President Reagan the Statement is very short on information and I should be grateful if the noble Viscount the Leader of the House can enlighten us a little more as to the kind of things which were agreed upon for the forthcoming talks.

We, too, regard the South African element of the discussions as being most important. I was surprised that the Statement said that the matter would be reviewed in six months' time, as if nothing would be done in the meantime. Surely, with the knowledge that one already has, that it will be most likely to be necessary to do something in six months' time, one can in the meantime be preparing the ground. In terms of preparing the ground, I hope it is clearly the Government's continuing firm view—because it has not been mentioned in the Statement—that the release of Nelson Mandela is a pre-condition to having a proper dialogue with representatives of the black community.

Secondly I should like, if I may, to draw the attention of the Government to the experience of the Labour Government of 1964 to 1970, in which I was privileged to play a part and to have the responsibility for looking after financial sections. I can assure the noble Viscount, in case he has not this in mind, that financial sanctions can be both selective and effective. So far as we on these Benches are concerned, we should want the sanctions to be as selective as possible, so as not to damage the poorer section of the African community and the black community there. However, we take the view that they must surely be taking: that it is open to men and women of every colour to decide on their own priorities and to take the view that they would rather be free and enjoying respect equally with the rest of the community, even though that may mean, in the short term, some additional hardship. We very much hope that the Government will share that view.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, for their response to the Statement. I am also grateful for their support for the expressions of abhorrence of apartheid, and for many of the other measures taken which are mentioned in the Statement. I therefore do not think I need to waste the time of the House on commenting on measures where there was clear support for what is being done.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, particularly asked what the Government would do if, at the end of the six months, the limited measures taken in accordance with the Commonwealth Accord had not been successful. I think the noble Lord will appreciate that at the present time such questions must be wholly hypothetical ones which he does not expect me to answer. At this time we are naturally taking our part as agreed at the Commonwealth Accord. Therefore it is to be seen and hoped that these measures will work and that there will be progress. What will happen if there is not will have to be decided at that time and I do not think I can possibly say anything further on that account.

The noble Lord asked me who would represent Britain. That question has not yet been decided. He also asked me whether the British military attachés are still in South Africa. I understand that we are taking steps to arrange their recall now. I gather therefore that they must still be there. If I am wrong in that, I shall inform the noble Lord. However, from information that I have been given, I understand that that is the position.

The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, said that he wished for more information on the meeting held between the heads of Government and President Reagan, at which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was present. I am afraid that I am not in a position to give any further information for one of the best possible reasons in the world: that I was not there. However, I understand that they reviewed the way in which President Reagan intended to approach the summit meeting with Mr. Gorbachev and that, as the Statement says, they were in full accord and wished him well in what he was going to do, expressing considerable confidence in his position.

The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, asked about the possibility of selective financial sanctions. Her Majesty's Government are committed by joining in the Commonwealth Accord, which they signed, to the measures taken there. They also agreed with our partners in the EC to the measures on which they were agreed. That is the position of Her Majesty's Government at the moment and for the present time that is our full position.

Lord Home of the Hirsel

My Lords, we must hope for favourable developments so far as South Africa is concerned over the next six months. However, will her Majesty's Ministers recognise that, if the economic sanctions were successful against South Africa, that would be the quickest way to ruin the economies of Swaziland, Basutoland, Mozambique and Namibia, with severe economic repercussions further afield? Could that make any contribution to the development of the continent?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I hope that there will be many people in this country and perhaps throughout the world who will listen to the wise words of my noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel, who has unrivalled experience of these matters. I must say that I wholly agree with what he has said. Her Majesty's Government wholly agree with the position that he has set out. I hope that many of the people who advocate stronger measures will think very carefully on the words which my noble friend has just spoken to the House.

4 p.m.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, could the noble Lord tell us—and this is the case of Mr. Nelson Mandela—whether in our case we would be prepared to release a man who has been convicted of running arms and explosives into this country for the purpose of making war on the British Government, and who declares that if he is released he will proceed immediately to continue to do the same thing? If the answer to that is "yes", whom would he not release?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not intend to be drawn by the noble Lord in further comments about other people. Suffice it to say that, as my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, the British Government believe, in the circumstances, that very serious consideration should be given to the release of Mr. Mandela as a means of helping to remove the tension at the present time.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount two questions. The Statement refers to violence, and I understand that Her Majesty's Government have expressed their intention of refusing to meet Mr. Oliver Tambo, the leader of the African National Congress, until he renounces violence. Do Her Majesty's Government consider President Botha to be a man of violence? If not, in what way is he different from Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela or any other members of the ANC who have been forced into violence? Further, do Her Majesty's Government not remember that they were forced to talk to Joshua N'Komo and Robert Mugabe, who never pretended that they had not organised the violence in order to destroy the oppressive regime in Rhodesia if an agreement in Rhodesia was to come about?

Secondly, is it the view of Her Majesty's Government that President Botha and his règime can be persuaded by words, despite the failure of such persuasion for the past 74 years? If not, are not some stronger measures needed behind those words if any substantial change is to take place in the règime in South Africa?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, the noble Lord has produced a number of trick questions for me. I think I shall answer them fairly briefly and in a straight manner. First, the Government have said that they will not see the head of the ANC until he has renounced violence in accordance with the position we have made clear in other cases. I think it has to be said that these are people who are not prepared to renounce violence directed against the overthrow of the state in South Africa. That, I would have thought, puts them in an entirely different position from the president of that state. They are seeking by violence to upset the state and we have agreed that we will not see those who have engaged in violence. That remains our position. Indeed, I do not think the various comparisons with other cases are appropriate in this case.

As far as the question of words is concerned, the Government wish to see peaceful change in South Africa and we will do everything we can to encourage such peaceful change, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear when she saw President Botha last year. The noble Lord then asked: what happens if those efforts of peaceful change do not succeed? When he talks then of stronger measures, I think that I can only add that perhaps he will examine when economic sanctions have been effective in the world in which he and I have lived for a considerable time. There are extremely few examples that I can think of when they have been successful; and I do not believe that they would be successful if they were taken on a severe scale, a scale, as my noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel has said, damaging the economies of neighbouring states and probably damaging very much the standard of living of many black people in South Africa itself.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is it not true to say that the situation in South Africa is far too complicated just to squeak for sanctions? The Boers have been there in South Africa a lot longer than the black men have. I think that they collided at the Battle of Blood River in 1787. That is when the Zulus and the Boers collided. The Cape Province was settled by the Boers long before the black man got there.

A noble Lord


The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the noble Lord's history may be better than mine. I doubt it. Furthermore, if we destabilise South Africa totally, every body is going to suffer. Surely what my right honourable friend is trying to do is to help a stubborn, arrogant and proud Boer people to change for the better. That is what we ought to be doing—helping people to change, rather than saying, "You can't buy oranges!" or by sitting down in the streets of Milton Keynes.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not think I will enter into a discussion with my noble friend about the various historical matters, which I think go slightly wider than the Statement that I have just made. I note, and I agree profoundly with, what he has said about the need for peaceful change.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I should like to ask one short question regarding the final sentence in this important Statement. We understand from that that the President revealed to the Prime Minister and her colleagues the general nature of his approach to his important meeting with Mr. Gorbachev. Surely on her return, the Prime Minister will have revealed what the general nature of his approach was going to be. I can hardly imagine that that would not be so. Without asking any indiscreet questions, what I should like to know is whether the general support given by the Prime Minister to this important approach by the President contains also support for his attitude to the vexed question of star wars in the forthcoming talks in Geneva?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not think I can add anything to the statements that have been made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary on all these subjects over a period of time. I think that the positions of the British Government are very well known. These were discussed. The position of President Reagan is very well known and, as a result, the nations together expressed their support and confidence in President Reagan's approach. I think the basic proposals behind the approach are really very well known from many statements that have been made previously.

Lord Monson

My Lords, may I ask whether there were any plans proposed to impose economic sanctions upon the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, East Germany and so on unless these countries started to dismantle the oppressive communist system within six months?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, mindful as I always am of seeking to further the recommendations of the procedure committee of this House, as my position as Leader should certainly imply, I think that I have to say that that supplementary question goes far beyond the Statement which I have just made to the House.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, may I invite the noble Lord to expand on the reply that he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, on the question of selective sanctions? Is he aware that there are substantial credits due for renewal in the next six months; and will the application of selective sanctions involve the cessation of further credits to the South African banks who are now in the market for these renewals?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, it would be a mistake for me to go further than the statements which have been made in the Commonwealth Accord and the agreement among the EC members. If there is any way in which I can help the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, or the noble Lord after discussing this with my colleagues, I shall be very pleased to do so.