HL Deb 20 December 1989 vol 514 cc273-7

3.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question being given in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs about Panama. The Answer is as follows:

"We welcome the establishment of democratic government in Panama. We fully support the American action to remove General Noriega, which was undertaken with the agreement of the leaders who clearly won the elections held last May. Noriega's arbitrary rule was maintained by force. We and many others have repeatedly condemned Noriega and called for the election result in Panama to be respected. Every peaceful means of trying to see the results of the democractic elections respected had failed.

"We have been in touch with the British chargé in Panama. So far as he has been able to establish, there have been no British casualties. The embassy has advised British residents to remain in their homes until the situation becomes clearer".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, we on these Benches are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement with regard to the grave events in Panama. On these Benches we certainly agree with what the Minister has said about General Noriega who we believe is a brutal dictator who has deprived the Panamanian people of their democratic rights. We too condemn his record on human rights.

However, having said that, we should like to ask some questions of the Minister as to the unilateral action that the Americans have taken. We have some doubts as to whether it is the best course to take to deal with the problem in Panama at the present. We think that this is a particularly sensitive moment in international relations when changes in Eastern Europe are offering a great opportunity to improve international relations, and such intervention could possibly be an aggravation to that movement forward. We believe that it would have been of greater safety if the Americans had sought to take action within the UN charter.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister these questions. Was the situation in Panama placed before the Security Council of the United Nations? Does the American intervention raise a question of legality? Is it true that the Soviet Union has stated that American action has contravened the UN charter? At what point did our Prime Minister know that there was to be US military intervention? Were we asked for any support of any kind? We are very happy to hear that the British community of Panama is safe, but have there been any other civilian deaths or indeed any casualties among the US troops? Have we had any consultations with our EC partners on this very grave turn of events in Panama? Lastly, have any British businessmen encountered problems arising out of the present situation in Panama; and what is being done to help them through these difficult times?

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for the Statement that he has made. I entirely agree with him and the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that General Noriega is probably one of the least pleasant of all the Heads of State in the world, and that is saying a good deal. I do not know who is worse, General Noriega or President Ceausescu. I have no doubt that the people of Panama will be delighted if he is overthrown.

Nonetheless, one must ask with some anxiety under what provision of international law the unilateral action by the United States has been taken. It is the exact opposite of what happened in the Falklands. We were able to mobilise international opinion in the Falklands because of unilateral aggression by Argentina. No matter how disgraceful General Noriega may be, it appears that unilateral action has been taken by the United States. I should be much comforted if the noble Lord could provide me with a provision under international law which justifies that.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their reception of the Statement. We are unanimous in condemning General Noriega as a brutal dictator. As regards US action and its legality, the root of the problem was General Noriega's defiance of his own people and his refusal to accept the result of the May election. It is clear that President Endara endorsed the American action. General Noriega is said to have said that they were in a state of war with the United States. President Bush said that he took action only as a last resort and for four reasons: to protect American lives; to defend democracy; to arrest an indicted drugs trafficker; and to defend the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties. Surely there is no suggestion that General Noriega represented legality.

All 279 independent observers from 21 countries formally declared that the May election was won overwhelmingly by the opposition alliance headed by President Endara. No doubt there will be a great deal of debate by lawyers about the legal aspects. The fact is that it was General Noriega who by his actions brought about the US action.

I am not aware that the matter has yet been put before the Security Council. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister was telephoned by President Bush at 7 a.m. today and she assured him of our full support. Of course, we regret any loss of life. I am not in a position to give detailed figures. We have no means better than the news programmes of discovering what is happening at the moment. We are in touch with the French presidency in connection with this matter. I hope that that answers the questions that have been raised.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the Minister—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, it is the turn of this side I believe.

Lord Denham

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will give way. I believe that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, rose first. I am sure that the House will then be eager to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am obliged. Is my noble friend aware that generally in this country public opinion will be in sympathy with our American friends for the situation in which they were placed? It will have full confidence that they acted sensibly to deal with an all but impossible situation. Is he also aware of the fact that in similar situations world peace will be preserved only if major powers such as the United States are prepared to take upon themselves the risks and dangers inherent in the action which most of us fully applaud?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's support, as, I am sure, will be the American Government. I have already given the reasons why President Bush decided to take such action and I believe that we can agree that they were good reasons.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, first, I make it clear that we on these Benches do not acquiesce in the abandonment of the custom by which the SDP spokesman comes first after the Government's first statement—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, it is not a custom.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. It has never been agreed through the usual channels that there should be an absolute right for a spokesman from his party to come immediately afterwards but that he should come soon after the first two speakers.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I did not say that there had been an agreement but that I regretted the abandonment of the custom. Perhaps the matter can be discussed further in the right place —

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, it has never existed and the noble Lord knows that.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me for pointing out that on most occasions that has happened.

First, we associate ourselves with the substance of the two questions that have been put to the Government in this matter. Can they confirm that the United States has closed the Panama Canal as part of the action? Do they believe that the press estimates of about 10 American soldiers killed are right? Can they say whether it is true that, although his headquarters have been destroyed by bombardment, General Noriega has succeeded in fleeing to Colombian territory? If so, what is their view of the likely next American move?

To the Government's knowledge, was the action taken under an opinion of the United States Justice Department to the effect that it was legal for United States forces anywhere in the world to apprehend fugitives from American justice with or without the knowledge or agreement of the government in whichever country they were apprehended?

Do the Government remember that more than a month ago I tabled a Question asking for their reaction to that opinion and that they replied that they were not aware of the opinion? Are the Government aware that yesterday I tabled another Question to the same effect? Can they now give their reaction to that startling opinion of the United States Justice Department? Can they say why, if it is applicable in Panama, it should not be applicable in any country in the world, including this country, and applicable with peculiar ease in countries where American troops are based?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord's last point, I am aware of his Question relating to the US Justice Department. It will be answered in due course but I cannot comment upon it against the background of today's actions. I understand that the Panama Canal is now closed. I cannot comment on any of the press estimates as regards casualties. I have no knowledge of the present whereabouts of General Noriega.

Lord Rippon of Hexham

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is widespread support for the way in which the Prime Minister responded so swiftly to the telephone call from the President of the United States and promised British support for her ally? Does he agree that there is some force in the view expressed in your Lordships' House during the past century by Lord Harcourt? It was to the effect that, as regards legality, intervention may be justified in international law on many grounds, but there is nothing more injudicious than an unsuccessful intervention? May we therefore express the hope that the American action will be speedily successful?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Rippon and we must hope that American action is speedily successful.

Lord Monson

My Lords, enlarging on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, if it is true that the United States intends to remove General Noriega from Panama by force, if they can locate him and take him to the United States for trial, is that in accordance with international law?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot answer that question.