HL Deb 28 October 1986 vol 481 cc627-36

4.1 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Foreign Affairs Council on 27th October being made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Sir Geoffrey Howe. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council which I chaired on 27th October. The Minister for Trade represented the United Kingdom.

"The council approved the Commission's intention to launch immediate action in the GATT with a view to securing rapid removal of Japanese discriminatory barriers to imports of alcoholic drinks. The council also decided to keep under close review the conditions under which Japanese products are exported to the EC. The council welcomed the agreement with the United States settling the outstanding trade dispute over citrus fruit and pasta.

"The council also discussed briefly the negotiations with the United States about the trade effects of enlargement, the proposals for the 1987 generalised scheme of preferences and recent Canadian trade measures. Agreement was reached on new community programmes in the fields of energy and telecommunications. These include allocations of £29 million to Northern Ireland.

"The council welcomed the recent agreement on a revised Community mandate for the negotiations with Mediterranean countries on the maintenance of their trade access to the Community following the accession of Spain and Portugal. The council considered its reaction to the expressed wish of Comecon to enter into official relations with the Community as well as possible bilateral agreements with Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It confirmed the importance of mutually beneficial commercial and economic links with Eastern European countries.

"The council reached agreement on the implementation of a Community-wide ban on imports of gold coins from South Africa. The member states also adopted a decision suspending new investment in South Africa by firms and individuals in the Community. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will be announcing shortly details of how this measure will be implemented.

"The council approved proposals to grant the Palestinian populations of the West Bank and Gaza preferential access to the Community market and agreed to establish a fresh aid programme for those territories. These proposals will bring practical help to those living in the occupied territories. They were the result of a British initiative. They underline our continuing commitment to the search for peace in the region.

"I gave my Community colleagues a full briefing on the Hindawi case and presented them with the conclusive evidence of Syrian official involvement. They were both impressed and disturbed. The Greek representative could not associate himself with any measures or statement against Syria or the Syrian Government. With that sole exception, all Ministers expressed their collective sense of outrage that the agencies of a state had been involved in such an incident, and they expressed full understanding and support for the action which we had taken. They undertook that no partner would accept as a diplomat any of the Syrians who had been expelled from London in connection with this case.

"We instructed the Political Committee to meet on 6th November to continue this discussion. By that date, ambassadors in Damascus will have presented the Syrian Government with the evidence of what has taken place and will have reported back. We have agreed to consider at the next ministerial meeting in London on 10th November the possibility of action in relation to arms sales to Syria, high level visits to and from Syria, the activities of Syrian embassies in the member states, and security arrangements affecting the operations of Syrian Arab Airlines.

"Yesterday's proceedings went some way—but by no means as far as the House would have wished—to send the Syrian Government a clear message that their behaviour has been intolerable.

"Finally, Syria is one of the countries for which the Community's Mediterranean financial protocols expire next Saturday. Renewal requires unanimity. There can be no question of the United Kingdom agreeing to further financial assistance for Syria in present circumstances."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement which deals with a number of important matters. Our immediate attention is naturally concentrated upon Syrian official involvement in the Hindawi case. The word "official" is used in the Statement. Can the noble Baroness say what is the conclusive evidence against the Syrian Government that is mentioned in the Statement? Are we to assume that the word "official" refers not only to the Syrian embassy in London but also to the Syrian Government? We support the Government in their total condemnation of the act. We support the Government in their action and their attitude generally. It would help, however, if the facts were reiterated and made plain by the noble Baroness.

Furthermore, do our EC partners accept the evidence referred to in the Statement as conclusive? Was the evidence discussed in detail at the meeting? Did the Foreign Ministers of the 11 agree that the evidence was in fact incontrovertible? We note the reaction of many of our EC partners. We are disappointed that they are unable to accept the Government's proposals in full. We are glad nonetheless that there are to be further deliberations on 10th November. We hope that more progress will then be made in the direction of positive and effective action. Can the noble Baroness say whether there is reason to hope that this will be the case after the meeting on 10th November?

Can the noble Baroness further confirm that trade considerations are the main obstacles to full agreement and a united stand against terrorism? Can she say, firstly, what is the total arms trade between EC countries and Syria and, secondly, what is the current level of EC aid to Syria? How will the expiry of the financial protocols affect aid generally from EC countries to Syria? It would help the House if the noble Baroness could say what steps the United States Administration are proposing to take in the matter. We have noted from newspaper reports the current views of the United States Administration. It would help if we knew what steps they might have in mind as well.

Can the noble Baroness say, finally, on this point how many international terrorist organisations have their headquarters in Damascus or elsewhere in Syria, and whether it is true that Syria is in practice a bigger menace in the field of terrorism than is Libya? We note with approval from the Statement read by the noble Baroness the closer relationship which may become possible with Comecon. However, having said that, what official representations do the Government propose to make to the Soviet Union, an ally of Syria, about that country's harbouring of terrorists and the effect upon the international community?

We note with interest the other matters mentioned in the Statement. I regret that, owing to the importance of that one matter I have just discussed, it is not possible to go into details on these other issues but perhaps we shall be able to deal with them in our Foreign Affairs debate which will take place in due course following the Gracious Speech. However, I should like to refer to the Japanese Government's barriers to imports which are mentioned in the Statement. From my own experience these are quite indefensible. Apart from the close review which is mentioned in the Statement, what positive action are we and our partners in the EC going to take against the Japanese in order to remove this inequitable situation that exists?

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement, may I ask whether she is aware that we welcome the decision of the Government to take action in respect of Syria in relation to the Community's Mediterranean financial protocols. Perhaps I may raise two specific questions. Is the noble Baroness aware that we very much hope that the next ministerial meeting with our Community partners in London next month will be rather more satisfactory than the last? Is she aware in respect of our relationship with our colleagues in Europe that there is some need to avoid self-righteousness in this matter? Is the noble Baroness aware that we hesitated for a very long time before we took action against the terrorists who were working from the Libyan People's Bureau in St. James's Square? Is she aware that the only reason we ultimately did so was because of the lamentable murder of Woman Police Constable Fletcher? Is the noble Baroness aware that a number of us raised the need for more vigorous action in respect of the Libyans on a number of occasions and got precisely nowhere until that murder occurred?

Is the noble Baroness aware that it is necessary to try to carry our European colleagues with us? Some of them have problems. For instance, the French have hostages who have been taken in Beirut and presumably they have to have periodic contact with the Syrian authorities in respect of the lives of those hostages. Is she aware, nowithstanding that, that we very much hope we shall get a more satisfactory meeting with our European colleagues next month?

May I turn to one specific question which a number of us raised after the murder of Woman Police Constable Fletcher because exactly the same issue has been raised in relation to the behaviour of the Syrians? That is the use of diplomatic bags. Is the noble Baroness aware that a number of us asked for far more vigorous steps to be taken on this issue on the last occasion? Is she aware that once again we have clear evidence that diplomatic bags have been used to bring explosives and firearms into this country? What action will now be taken? We cannot afford to waste more time and risk more lives in the future, both in this country and elsewhere, simply because of some hesitation on our part about bringing in more stringent requirements regarding these matters.

Lastly, may I ask the noble Baroness about the position of Syrian Arab Airlines, a well-known front organisation for terrorists? Is she aware that, as I understand it, the Syrian Government have themselves decided not to have any further flights to London? May I ask the noble Baroness this question. If the Syrian Government change their position on that matter shall we allow such flights to take place or not?

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, first, I should like to thank both the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for their reception of this Statement, and for their support for the action which the Government have taken with regard to Syria. I have been asked a number of quite specific questions by both noble Lords. I shall see whether I can give them answers to all the matters that they have raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked this very important question about what evidence we gave to our Community partners to indicate Syrian involvement. I can confirm to the noble Lord that we gave conclusive evidence of Syrian involvement with Hindawi, and that the Syrian claim that they thought he was no more than a bona fide journalist was, frankly, incredible. Why give him a passport in a false name? But perhaps I may draw the attention of the House to the Statement that was made on 24th October by my right honourable and learned friend in another place in which he listed the evidence that we gave which was produced in the trial: that hotel accommodation was reserved for the Syrian Arab Airline crew; that Hindawi spent the night after the bombing attempt in the Syrian Embassy accommodation where his hair clippings and hair dye were found.

These certain facts are undisputed: that Hindawi travelled on an official Syrian passport in a false name; his visa applications on two occasions were backed by official notes from the Syrian Foreign Ministry; and he met the Syrian ambassador, Dr. Haydar, in his embassy, after the discovery of the bomb. In addition, we have independent evidence that the Syrian ambassador was personally involved several months before the commission of the offence in securing for Hindawi the sponsorship of the Syrian intelligence authorities; and we have equally compelling evidence that during his detention Hindawi sought to contact secretly Syrian intelligence officials in Damascus with a request for their assistance in securing his release. I think that this is quite clear evidence on that point and I am glad to confirm it.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, went on to ask whether our Community partners accept as evidence that this is conclusive. Perhaps I may say that on that matter all our partners—except for Greece—shared our outrage at the Syrian involvement and expressed their understanding and support for our action. With regard to the Greeks, our view is that we fail to understand their inability to accept this compelling evidence of Syrian involvement with Hindawi. It is even more surprising in view of the recent terrorist incidents in Athens, including of course the unhappy murder of Mr. Whitty, the British Council employee. This surely demonstrates that appeasement of terrorism does not pay.

The noble Lord went on to ask what we expect to come out of the next meeting of the Community Foreign Ministers, which will take place on 10th November. We very much hope that. when our partners have had time to reflect on the evidence and the implications of the case, we shall reach agreement on the proposals we have made. I know that my right honourable and learned friend is looking for agreement on that date. At the same time, of course, we have indicated our firm intention to back up our statements, as witnessed by the withdrawal of our financial support for Syria from the Community.

The noble Lord also asked me a number of questions on Community aid to Syria and in particular on arms. Perhaps I may answer the question on arms first. No figures are available for the Community's arms exports. Our own defence sales exports were approximately £13 million since 1984, and our partners have agreed to review their arms sales on 10th November. On the question of our general assistance to Syria, as the Statement made clear, the present Financial Protocol expires at the end of this month. It is worth £43 million and £22 million in budgetary aid. That of course will not be renewed. The Commission was expected to bring forward a proposal for both loans, and budgetary aid to Syria expected to amount to about £100 million over five years, and that requires agreement. We have of course indicated our position on that.

Perhaps I may conclude by saying that the United States has agreed to withdraw its ambassador from Syria, which sends the right signal to the Syrian Government. So far as concerns the Soviet Union, we have made strong representations in both London and Moscow, particularly because the Soviet media in its support for Syria is totally inconsistent with the professed Soviet opposition to terrorism.

There was one last point that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, raised concerning Japanese trade barriers. The noble Lord asked what, if anything, we had been prepared to do about the situation. I think, as the Statement made clear, we feel we have no alternative but to take the Japanese action to the GATT, which is fully in accordance with the European Community's international trading obligations.

I think that there were two specific points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, which I have not covered in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. Perhaps I may just say as a general point that I do not think we feel in any sense self-righteous about this. It is a terribly serious situation. The government have acted responsibly and swiftly to deal with this very difficult situation. I think we have been a leader of other countries in Europe in an effort to get international co-operation to deal with the situation.

On the specific points which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, raised, the first of which was whether we are taking sufficiently vigorous action, I think the evidence that we have taken action is quite clear, and we have made this plain to our Community partners. It is also worth remembering that we also have hostages in Lebanon. Therefore, it is a very difficult policy for us to pursue.

Concerning the question of diplomatic bags, which was the second point the noble Lord raised, this is something which we are looking at actively. It is a subject of concern. However, there is no evidence that diplomatic bags were used in the Hindawi case.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, does my noble friend's reference to the review of arms sales from the Community to Syria being reviewed on 10th November cover the suggestion fairly widely stated in the press that the French certainly were contemplating major arms sales to Syria? Was it made clear to the French that if there was anything in that it would be a most serious matter? Is it covered by her statement that all this is to be considered, I hope firmly, on 10th November?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am able to give my noble friend that assurance. This was one of the matters discussed in a very lengthy meeting. It is clearly one of the issues to which my right honourable and learned friend will be returning at the meeting on 10th November.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will continue to press the matter of the diplomatic bags. It is a very long time now since this was discovered. I think I remember reading, perhaps not in this specific case, that the Syrian airlines had been widely used for the import of arms and explosives. Surely there is nothing against X-raying a diplomatic bag. It is the papers which are valuable and secret. If there are arms in those bags they will be very quickly shown up. Surely this is a matter which could be pressed with the EC as well so that we can universally take action against those countries which are harbouring and training terrorists. There are people who say that the actions which the EC and ourselves have already agreed, and the further actions which we hope May be agreed on 10th November, are anti-Arab. Can my noble friend say what possible evidence there is in any way to support that?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I can certainly given an assurance to my noble friend that as I indicated earlier, we are looking actively at the whole question of diplomatic bags. I have noted the important point that he made.

Concerning the second point that he raises, I am glad to confirm that our action is in no sense anti-Arab. We believe our Arab friends well understand our reasons for breaking relations with Syria. As the Statement makes clear, the Community has just adopted on a British initiative a programme of aid and preferential access to the Community for the West Bank and for Gaza.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, the noble Baroness emphasises the fact that our other partners, apart from Greece, sympathised and agreed with the action which we had taken. Perhaps she can say whether anything was said as to why they were unable to follow the action that we had taken? Also, was there any consultation at all between our Government and the other partners before the action was taken by the United Kingdom?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think it is very important to recognise in what has been said that we believe that we have made useful progress. Except for Greece, all the partners share our sense of outrage at the Syrian involvement. As I indicated, they expressed their understanding for the action we have taken. It was clear that all the partners were prepared to take further action. However, in order to get all 11 countries to agree on the same action, there will need to be further discussion.

Our partners yesterday agreed the following: not to accept as diplomats those expelled from the United Kingdom in connection with the Hindawi case; that Community ambassadors should present evidence to the Syrian Government and report in time for discussion by the political committee on 6th November and by Foreign Ministers on 10th November; and that they would then consider further action on arms sales, as I indicated to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, high level visits, activities of Syrian embassies and security in regard to the Syrian airline operation. There are a number of very important matters still to be discussed and we hope that agreement Will be reached at this further meeting.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, the noble Baroness did not answer the question that I put to her about consultation between this country and our partners before any announcement was made as to our action.

Baroness Young

My Lords, we are in close contact with our Community partners. We made our announcements as to what we would do following upon the result of the court case last Friday. It has been clear over the weekend the action that we have taken. I think it is important to understand that progress was made yesterday—not as much progress as we might have wished, but nevertheless progress was made. My right honourable and learned friend wishes to come back at the next meeting on these other matters, which I recognise—as does the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, and other noble Lords—are issues that are extremely important and on which it will be important to reach agreement for common action.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, perhaps the Minister can assure the House that it was made clear by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary that common action against terrorism is regarded by many people in this country as a litmus test of the validity of the Community's commitment to act together. In that connection is it true, as is reported in the press today, that the Greek Foreign Minister went so far as to say that he did not believe the evidence presented by the British Foreign Secretary or the conclusion of a British court of justice? As this is not the first time by any means that Greece has taken up a stand hostile to the interests of this country and her allies, ought not the question of the status of Greece in the Community be looked at very seriously?

Baroness Young

My Lords, there have been a number of earlier European Community statements on terrorism. We have not been asking anything of our partners which has not already been agreed in principle in these statements. I should like to draw the attention of the House to them.

In Dublin in 1984 it was agreed that if one partner suffers a serious terrorist attack involving the abuse of diplomatic immunity, partners will be ready to consider common action in response. On 27th January 1986 the Community agreed that states that favour or protect terrorists cannot expect normal relations with the Twelve. Again, at the same time, there was a decision not to export arms or other military equipment to countries which are clearly implicated in supporting terrorism.

They intensified their common action to improve their own defences against terrorism and discourage those who support it in the following areas: security at airports, ports, railway stations; frontier controls; visa policies; and the abuse of diplomatic immunity. All those policies have been agreed by all the Twelve countries of the Community. We hope therefore that the Greek Government will agree to act in conjunction with the others at the next meeting on 10th November, because they have of course already in principle accepted the need for international action against terrorism.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, on the question of timing, it was essential (was it not?) that the judicial process at the Old Bailey, conducted in accordance with the highest principles of British justice, should have been completed and a decision arrived at before the Government could take action?

Baroness Young

My Lords, it is quite proper that the noble and learned Lord should make that point to the House, because of course we had to wait until the conclusion of the case before we could take action; and that was why the Statement was made when it was.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that inadvertently there was one point with which she did not deal; namely, the position of Syrian Arab Airlines? Is she aware that, as I understand the situation, the Syrians themselves have decided to suspend flights to London? The question which I asked was this. Assuming that that decision is changed, are we prepared to allow what is, in fact, an airline used for terrorist purposes throughout Western Europe to start flights again to London?

Secondly, is the noble Baroness aware that many of us find the Government's hesitation on the question of diplomatic bags almost incomprehensible? Is the noble Baroness aware that there was the clearest evidence in relation to Libya that those bags were used for that purpose? Is the noble Baroness aware that "the need for further consideration", and all the other phrases which have been used to explain total inaction on this question for a period of many months, is, I repeat, incomprehensible to many of us?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's last point, obviously I take note of what he has said and I shall draw it to the attention of my right honourable and learned friend. I apologise to the noble Lord for not answering his question about the Syrian Arab Airlines. The Syrians have themselves ended Syrian airline flights to London. The noble Lord asked me what we would do if they decided to reinstate those flights. I think that that would clearly be a matter which we would have to consider very carefully, as, indeed, we are considering urgently the action that we should be taking about flights to Syria.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, I am not clear about the effect of the answer which the noble Baroness gave to her noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Is it the fact that at present the French Government are contemplating a considerable sale of arms to Syria, that the British Government have made it clear that we should deplore that, but that we do not yet know what the French decision will be?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the fact of the matter is that no decision has been taken by the Twelve on arms sales. I assured my noble friend, as I assure the noble Lord, Lord Stewart, that this is clearly a matter to which we attach the greatest importance. It is a matter on which we wish to obtain Community co-operation to stop arms sales to Syria in these circumstances, and that is clearly something which will be high on the agenda at the meeting on 10th November.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, I asked the noble Baroness this question. Has it been the intention of the French Government to make a sale of arms to Syria, and how does that matter stand now?

Baroness Young

My Lords, my understanding of the position is that there are arms sales in prospect, but the important point is the decision, which we hope will be made by all our Community partners at the next meeting, to ban arms sales.