§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]
§ 10 pm
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise in the House the subject of the United Kingdom's relationship with Belize, a tiny central American Commonwealth country with an enviable tradition of democratic government and an excellent record on human rights. My theme is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is in the cautious process of distancing itself from this former British colony, at a time when, in the interests of the United Kingdom and the Belizeans, we should be working closely with them. For our country, there is an element of unfinished business while Belize's independence is overshadowed by an unfounded territorial claim by a powerful neighbour.
I begin by expressing my reservations about the reduction of the British garrison which has been deployed there since 1948, the year when my hon. Friend the Minister was born. Some of us who followed the matter closely at the time of the reduction will take some persuading that the reduction was not largely led by the Treasury.
I visited our brigade-size force in Belize a few years ago with the officers of the Conservative Defence Committee. We were all impressed by the role that our service men performed there, and the wonderful training facilities that they experienced. Here was one part of the world where low-flying training presented no problems.
The so-called saving of some £9 million was a small one, and there was clearly a downside. I appreciate that the political and security circumstances in the region have improved, partly following Guatemalan recognition of Belize in 1991 as a sovereign state. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister, who has stayed out of bed to reply to this short debate, will know, this is not the full story.
Indeed, my hon. Friend's predecessor wrote to an hon. Member of this House last April expressing his concern thatrecent Guatemalan attitudes have unnecessarily raised the profile of the territorial dispute.He rightly raised that matter with Ministers in Guatemala last March. My hon. Friend the Minister will have been told of the disgraceful scenes at the Athens, San Jose, meeting last year, when Belize was not able to attend as an official observer. I hope that the Minister will make sure that our EU partners regularly make statements supporting Belize's position.
Guatemala has not given up its claim to all Belize. Last year, Guatemala restated that claim and deposited the appropriate documents with the UN. Guatemala does not recognise the existing border or the present border markers. It talks about the territory of Belize being at present "occupied", as if it were talking about the west bank. Guatemala publishes erroneous maps in which Belize is shown as a province of Guatemala.
That is unacceptable international behaviour, but it is not just a dispute between two foreign countries, as the United Kingdom had previously agreed that border. For 10 years, there have been documented cases of the Guatemalan military directing settlers into Belize. These 1282 settlers—as is the custom—have been slashing and burning areas of jungle indiscriminately in a designated national park.
Perhaps more than half the settlers have now gone back over the border, but there have been indications that, in recent years, the Guatemalan army has been resisting repatriation. It has told officials in Belize that, if they try to put those people back, they will have to deal directly with the army. Experts are not sure whether the Guatemalan defence forces are entirely under political control.
We are talking about an unstable country in the throes of a nasty civil war and with a callous and brutal disregard for human rights. The Guatemalan army is the largest in the region, with supplies from the United States, including radar which covers much of Belize. The Belize defence forces lack proper radar.
It is amazing to be told that Guatemala has not been prepared to accredit a Belizean ambassador in Guatemala, although Guatemala does have an ambassador in Belize. One wonders whether the forthcoming presidential elections in Guatemala could produce a right-wing leader who could seek to unite the country by taking a strong stand over Belize. If so, the Foreign Office could be caught on the wrong foot.
A letter in November 1993 from the British Prime Minister to the Prime Minister of Belize committed the United Kingdom to playing its part in protecting Belize in the event of a military threat. However, the words "in principle" were seen as weakening the previous commitment—probably justifiably so. As we know from the south Atlantic conflict, sending weak and uncertain signals as to our likely response can be dangerous. I submit that we need to strengthen our assurances so that there is no element of doubt. I am sure that that is the view of many Conservative Members.
Since 1 January 1994, the United Kingdom has not been responsible for the security of Belize. Our forces are down to a company strength, and are there for training only. They have no authority to intervene if any problems arise.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
Bearing in mind the fact that Belize is a member both of the Commonwealth and of the UN—which the Falklands was not—does my hon. Friend think that Guatemala has the message absolutely fair and square that any interference in Belize would be met with a strong response—led by this country, but shared with the UN and the Commonwealth?
§ Mr. Townsend
I hope that that is right, but my hon. Friend may pick up some reasons why I am more cautious that he is.
British forces in Belize have only three Gazelle helicopters, and a good case can be made for introducing to Belize one large helicopter—such as a Puma—which could expand the range of jungle training, as well as having other uses. The Belize defence force is improving, although it is still very small—even including the reserve forces. It has only light weapons, and it cannot be expected to contain a major invasion force.
International intervention, including air power, would be essential at an early stage if there should ever be an invasion. Britain has assisted with the development of the Belize defence force through the provision of loan service 1283 personnel, training, equipment and advice. I hope that we will hear tonight that that programme of assistance will continue. I wish that we could help them with their radar systems requirement.
The British garrison used to provide some assistance in counter-narcotics operations. Drug trafficking in Belize remains a problem. We should remember that some of those drugs are destined for western Europe. What assistance, if any, will we be giving the authorities in Belize this year and next in that regard? Post-cold war, that is just the sort of new task that our forces should be taking on.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that a Royal Navy frigate will continue to call there regularly? I believe that the local forces have only one naval patrol vessel, for a considerable coastline.
Belize's outstanding public sector debt with the United Kingdom totals about £16 million, all of which is owed to the Overseas Development Administration. For a small and comparatively poor country such as Belize, paying off those debts is a big strain on the economy. Because Belize is honourably making the payments, it does not qualify for debt relief. I understand the argument, but perhaps it is a little unsympathetic. Can nothing be done?
Last year, Her Majesty the Queen visited Belize—it was a triumph for her. Belize would welcome more high-level visits at this phase of its history. I am sure that the Minister will be anxious to see for himself that charming and friendly Commonwealth country. Our right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has been there recently. I hope that my hon. Friend will also make a point of receiving the high commissioner for Belize before too long.
Belize feels that it falls between two stools when it deals with Whitehall. The Department of Trade and Industry tends to view it as a Caribbean country, while the Foreign Office emphasises the central American angle. Could not the approach of the two Departments be brought into line?
The main British Council office in the area is established in Jamaica. Naturally, Belize believes that the council should reopen an office in Belize, which would be of great assistance to central America. Is that a suggestion that the Minister feels able to support?
Belize has benefited under our bilateral aid programme. Will the Minister inform us of the Government's intentions?
The Minister will be well aware that the banana crop represents an impressive source of revenue for Belize. Its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dean Barrow, wrote to our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture in December about obtaining a just share of the important European Union market. I am told that Belize is very disappointed that it has been granted a quota of only 40,000 tonnes in the new EU quota system. Pipeline investment is in place to produce 100,000 tonnes.
In late 1993, before the decision was made, the then Prime Minister, George Price, submitted a report alerting the British Government and the European Commission. That report demonstrated the need for a 100,000-tonne quota. So far, no adequate adjustment has been made above 40,000 tonnes. There is serious concern that Belize might have to throw away many thousands of tonnes of 1284 export-quality bananas, having no prospective alternative buyers. I hope that the Minister will either comment briefly on that topic tonight, or write to me in due course when he has had a chance to look into it.
I have put to the Minister the concern which I and a number of my colleagues feel about our relationship with Belize. I am a strong supporter of the Commonwealth, as the Minister knows. At the same time, I am a strong supporter of our European Union policy. I do not believe that they often conflict. Belize is a small and friendly Commonwealth country, and I hope that we shall go out of our way to emphasise our commitment to it and, at the same time, to the Commonwealth.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis)
I welcome the opportunity to reply to this debate on a quiet Thursday evening. I particularly welcome the subject that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) has raised.
Britain's relations with Belize go back a long way. The original British settlement was established in about 1638. From then on, the main activity was logwood cutting for the European dye industry. It was not until the treaty of Paris in 1763 that Spain conceded to British settlers the rights to engage in the logwood industry. That was reaffirmed by the treaty of Versailles of 1783 and the convention of London of 1789. In 1862, Britain designated Belize as a British colony, and called it British Honduras. It has been known as Belize since 1973.
When Guatemala became independent in 1821, she claimed that she had inherited the previous Spanish title to British Honduras. However, in 1859, Guatemala signed and ratified the UK-Guatemala treaty in which she recognised the existing boundary between Guatemala and British Honduras. In 1939, however, Guatemala denounced the 1859 treaty and claimed Belize. In 1945, the Guatemalan Government wrote into its new constitution an article to the effect that Belize was an integral part of Guatemalan territory.
Although Belize had become self-governing in 1964, the Guatemalan claim delayed the setting in train of constitutional procedures leading to full independence. In 1980, the United Nations General Assembly called on Britain to convene a constitutional conference to bring Belize to early independence.
The constitutional conference was duly convened in April 1981 and, the following September, Belize became an independent state recognised by all nations except Guatemala, which maintained its claim. Following independence, a British garrison remained in Belize, with the full support of the Belizean Government, to counter any external threat to its security.
Recent years have been momentous in Belize's independent history. In 1991, the United Kingdom, our European partners and the international community as a whole welcomed recognition of Belize as a sovereign independent country by President Serrano of Guatemala. During 1992, the Guatemalan constitutional court and congress confirmed recognition of Belize. However, they did not renounce certain territorial claims on the country. That is of continuing concern to us, and we have been encouraging the two sides to reach agreement.
1285 Increasingly, Belize's presence and role in the central American region has become fully accepted, including its attendance at central American summit meetings. I am glad to report to the House that, at the 11th annual ministerial meeting between Foreign Ministers of the European Union and central America, which I attended in Panama City on 24 February, Belize took part as an observer for the first time, and was represented by its distinguished Foreign Minister, Dean Barrow. Britain, and therefore the Foreign Office, played a crucial role in ensuring Belize's participation in that meeting. I recognised its presence there, as, subsequently, did a number of other countries, particularly Mexico.
My hon. Friend referred to the political prospects in Guatemala. The presidential election is due this autumn. So far, no candidates have declared themselves, so we cannot predict the outcome. We shall of course work with whoever is democratically elected.
It was against the background of that much-improved security in central America and Guatamala's recognition of Belizean independence, to which I have already alluded, that the Government reviewed Britain's defence relationship with Belize and the role of the British garrison. That was done in full consultation with the Government of Belize.
In May 1993, the then Minister of State, Foreign Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), informed the House that the garrison, which had been deployed in Belize since the year of my birth, would gradually reduce, during the following year or so, into a training operation for British troops, and that Belize would in due course assume responsibility for its own defence.
At the same time, we affirmed Britain's readiness to play a part in any consultation that the Belizean authorities might request about Belize's future security. We also undertook to maintain our programme of assistance to the Belize defence force and to sustain and improve the force's capability, and we gave an assurance that Belize would continue to be a beneficiary under Britain's bilateral aid programme.
In a joint statement with the Government of Belize during his visit in September 1993, the then Minister for the Armed Forces set out our plans for the garrison in fuller detail. It is gratifying to report that, since then, our plans have been accomplished in conditions of stability for Belize and for the region as a whole.
Belize assumed responsibility for its own defence on 1 January 1994. The reduction of the garrison was completed in September 1994, leaving a training team of about 100 permanent staff, including locally employed civilians, who are based at Airport camp.
I emphasise that the reduction of the garrison was a response to a much reduced external threat to Belize's security. In addition, the regional context is generally much more benign. Against that backdrop, it was natural for Belize, as a sovereign state recognised by the entire international community, to assume responsibility for its own defence.
However, those changes have not undercut Britain's defence links with Belize—far from it. There are regular company-strength deployments to Belize to take advantage of the resident training presence. There have 1286 been training deployments by RAF Harriers. We are also committed to maintaining our programme of assistance for the development of the Belize Defence Force.
§ Mr. Davis
If I am to answer my hon. Friend's questions in any detail, I need to press on.
One and a half million pounds worth of equipment was donated to the defence force when the reduction of the British garrison was completed. British Loan Service personnel contributed to its training. We also sent short-term training teams to train the Belize defence force in specific skills, as well as arranging training courses in Britain for its key members. Ten defence force members will receive training in Britain this year.
Most of that training is financed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's United Kingdom military training and assistance scheme, for which I am responsible. I am glad that, in response to the importance attached to helicopter support by the Belize defence force, also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence makes available a number of flying hours for the defence force each month.
My hon. Friend mentioned Puma helicopters. The Government of Belize have never asked for Pumas, which I should tell him would involve a significant infrastructure cost, and there is no British defence requirement for them in Belize. He also mentioned the Royal Navy frigate. He is right that that Royal Navy frigate has called at Belize regularly, and I can tell him that it will continue to do so.
As hon. Members know, Britain's close and friendly links with Belize, the only member of the Commonwealth in central America, go much wider than defence links. They are perhaps symbolised by Her Majesty the Queen's visit last year to Belize, one of her realms. Ministerial visits are frequent, and included a visit to Belize in May 1994 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who is the Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Committee, visited Belize last month at the invitation of the Government of Belize.
The British aid programme is a practical expression of the British commitment to Belize's development. We expect to spend more than £5 million this year, which is about £30 for every Belizean citizen. Capital projects now completed include a new terminal building at the international airport, and the Big Falls bridge on the southern highway.
A number of road projects are under way or being planned, including the Stann creek valley road, which covers a 23 km stretch in a major citrus-growing area; an emergency resealing programme for 11 miles of the northern highway; the resurfacing of 66 miles of the northern highway from Belize city to the Mexican border; the appraisal for the resealing and rehabilitation of the western highway; and the construction of the southern highway, at a cost of £7.5 million.
We are co-operating with the World bank to improve the quality of primary education through curriculum and examination reform and teacher education. We are also about to enter the fourth year of a forestry planning and management project in support of the Belize tropical forestry action plan.
1287 In the social sector, we are funding a community development project and a drug demand reduction programme—my hon. Friend rightly mentioned drugs. Our forward programme includes help with the introduction of value added tax and with the establishment of a social investment fund, which the World bank is supporting as a poverty reduction measure.
That bilateral programme is augmented by our multilateral aid through donors such as the European Community, which is building a new 112-bed hospital for Belize City. We are committed to maintaining a substantial aid programme for Belize to help the country meet the challenges of the 21st century.
My hon. Friend made some important remarks about the Belizean economy. The British aid programme makes a worthwhile contribution to Belize's steadily growing economy. Despite the withdrawal of the British garrison, the Belize economy grew by an estimated 1.6 per cent. in 1993–94. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Belizean Government on their resolve in recently introducing an austerity budget designed to correct the current fiscal deficit.
My hon. Friend said that Belize has not been granted debt relief. Judged by agreed World bank criteria, Belize's debt burden is manageable, but if Belize sought to restructure its debts, the Paris Club would consider the case for debt relief on its merits, provided that Belize agreed a programme of economic reform with the International Monetary Fund. However, Belize has not, at least at this point, approached the Paris Club.
The economic links between Britain and Belize are increasingly based on private sector trade and investment. Its growth and success is the best assurance of Belize's continued economic progress. Major British investors in Belize include Barclays bank, Fyffes—of course, in bananas—the Commonwealth Development Corporation and Shell.
1288 Britain is Belize's third biggest trading partner after the United States and Mexico, its neighbours. Our exports were almost £12 million in 1994. Principal exports are chemicals, industrial buildings, beverages, manufactured materials, food stuffs and generating equipment. Our imports from Belize, which totalled almost £40 million in 1994, included sugar, bananas, citrus, honey, vegetables and clothing.
My hon. Friend mentioned bananas. I cannot give him a definitive answer to his question today, but I shall, as he asked me, write to him on the matter, as I understand that it is of considerable significance to Belize.
My hon. Friend also asked me about the treatment of Belize as a central American or Caribbean country by ourselves and the Department of Trade and Industry. Geographically, Belize is clearly a central American country. We are pleased that it is increasingly participating in regional activities there—that is part of the effort that we have made in the past few years. But, as a Commonwealth country, Belize has much in common with countries in the Caribbean. It benefits from a substantial British aid programme and preferential access to the European market under the Lome convention. There are advantages in the two approaches, and I should not play them down.
It is against that background of regional stability and co-operation, and increasing prosperity in Belize, that I am glad to welcome the good relations established between Belize and Guatemala. Those good relations are due to a constructive approach on both sides, and will, I hope, eventually lead to a final settlement of the territorial dispute between the two countries. Meanwhile, it is encouraging that the problems that occasionally arise on the long frontier between Belize and Guatemala are successfully resolved by good will and flexibility on both sides—a process to which I hope we can contribute in future.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.