HC Deb 23 November 1964 vol 702 cc910-3
Mr. Driberg

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs what communications have been exchanged with the Belgian Government on the use of Ascension Island for an airlift of Belgian troops; and if he will raise in the Security Council, as a threat to international peace, the latest developments in the Congo.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was informed last week by the Belgian Government that they were engaged in contingency planning with the United States Government for the rescue of the civilian non-Congolese held prisoner in Stanleyville, if this should become necessary. These are believed to number around 1,000, of whom about 50 are British, including a number of women and children. Her Majesty's Government were asked for, and granted, certain facilities in connection with these precautionary steps, notably the right to stage through Ascension Island.

Her Majesty's Government do not consider that these developments constitute a threat to peace within the meaning of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. The United Kingdom representative at the United Nations has, however, been instructed to express to the Secretary-General our concern at the situation in Stanleyville and to express the hope that he and all members of the United Nations will do what they can to urge the rebels to treat these people in accordance with the normally accepted rules of warfare.

Mr. Driberg

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that it is vital that those who are holding these hostages should be persuaded to release them? [Laughter.] I do not find this a very funny situation, as hon. Members opposite seem to. Will my hon. Friend also bear in mind that this is necessarily an operation of extreme delicacy and that, in view of the history of the Congo in the past half-century or so, the use of Belgian troops in such an exercise is not necessarily the best way of securing the desired objective?

Mr. Thomson

My hon. Friend is perfectly right in emphasising the extreme delicacy and difficulty of ensuring what, I think, everybody in the House wants—the rescue of these quite innocent victims from a difficult situation in the Congo.

Her Majesty's Government have, of course, had very much in mind African opinion on this matter and, in particular, the point to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention. On the other hand, we recognise that the great majority of the civilians whose lives are at risk are Belgian. We take the view that under international law a State has the right to land troops in foreign territory to protect its nationals in an emergency if necessary.

Mr. R. A. Butler

While accepting the commonsense approach of the hon. Gentleman and of the Government to this matter, and the approach to the United Nations, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman can give us any further information about the safety of British nationals, any further steps that have been taken and any instructions that have been given to Her Majesty's representatives?

Mr. Thomson

Yes, Sir. Her Majesty's Government have been in close and constant touch with the American and Belgian Governments with a view to ensuring the safety of our nationals, who, as I have informed the House, number about 50. Steps have been taken for aircraft to fly in immediate relief and medical supplies the moment Stanleyville Airport is available for use.

Mr. Paget

Is my hon. Friend aware that while none of us, on either side of the House, would fail to support any measure that was likely to bring safety to these unfortunate victims, none the less it strikes us as most unlikely that the arrival of these particular troops, with their reputation in this area, would increase the safety of anybody, but would be far more likely to provoke trouble?

Mr. Thomson

I can only repeat that we are very much aware of the difficulties and risks attendant on any course of action in this situation, but we felt bound to support action that would attempt to save the lives of these civilians who, as I emphasised, include British citizens.

Mr. Thorpe

May I ask the hon. Gentleman, first, whether the United Kingdom High Commissioner or his representative are present at the talks which are currently taking place between Mr. Kenyatta and the American and Belgian authorities; secondly, why Her Majesty's Government will not press for either a Red Cross or a United Nations presence to be flown out to Stanleyville at this crucial moment; and, thirdly, whether as I understand it, Her Majesty's Government are now asking the United Nations to take action? Is it not somewhat unfortunate that the Secretary-General of the United Nations should not have known of this American-borne Belgian airlift to a British island until he read it on the tickertape at the United Nations headquarters?

Mr. Thomson

In regard to the possibility of the International Red Cross being able to take action to safeguard the lives of the people involved in Stanleyville, many efforts have been made by everybody concerned in this problem over the last week or so to try to bring about exactly this, but so far, unfortunately, these efforts have not been successful. This is one of the factors behind the kind of action that has been taken, which, I emphasise, is contingency and precautionary planning. Her Majesty's High Commissioner in Nairobi is in close touch with the discussions which are going on with the Prime Minister and President of Kenya and the other representatives.

Mr. Warbey

Can my hon. Friend say what steps he has taken to procure the withdrawal of the white mercenary brigades, in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolution? How many British nationals are serving in these mercenary brigades? What steps has he taken to bring home to them the fact that they are seriously endangering the lives of British and other white citizens by their activity?

Mr. Thomson

Her Majesty's Government have repeatedly made clear that they consider that the problem of the Congo is one to be settled by the Congolese themselves, in association with the other States of the African Continent. We still hold that view. We regard the use of mercenaries by either side as creating additional difficulties in an already difficult situation.

I would require notice about the number of British people serving as mercenaries.

Mr. Fell

I realise how tricky and difficult a subject this is, but may I ask the hon. Gentleman, first, what was the first day on which any British initiative was taken about the British subjects who are at present at risk in the Congo? Secondly, is it not worth taking almost any steps which are designed to save these people from slaughter, or the possibility of slaughter? Will the hon. Gentleman or one of his colleagues take the first plane out to these talks—[Laughter.] this is not funny—in Kenya with Mr. Kenyatta and others to see what may be done by at least showing that we have a definite interest in trying to safeguard the British people who are out there?

Mr. Thomson

This is an immensely dangerous and delicate situation. It is not easy to see the most effective way to save the lives of the people who are at risk there. We are certainly ready to consider any kind of suggestion which we feel might be helpful and constructive.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

Order. This is important, but we must move on.